To secure IT talent, the public sector must become more agile

In the continual war to acquire and retain top IT talent, the battle within the public sector is especially brutal, mired by restrictive budgets and a labyrinth of often-antiquated processes comparative to commercial organizations.

In fact, the shortage of tech talent is one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of new and critical technologies within the federal government. The problem is so dire that one senior official described the shortage in cyber workforce talent...

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In the continual war to acquire and retain top IT talent, the battle within the public sector is especially brutal, mired by restrictive budgets and a labyrinth of often-antiquated processes comparative to commercial organizations.

In fact, the shortage of tech talent is one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of new and critical technologies within the federal government. The problem is so dire that one senior official described the shortage in cyber workforce talent in particular as a national security threat.

With Baby Boomers leaving the workforce (one in four federal employees indicated they had plans to retire within five years in 2019), the race to find replacements — particularly for vital IT roles — is clearly on.

Work Flexibility Beyond COVID-19

At current time, 44.8% of federal workers are over age 50, while just 6.3% are under 30. Such statistics reflect the escalating need to attract Millennials and even Generation Z populations into the federal workforce, including in IT.

But these younger generations have different expectations for what their work should be like.

The long-held belief is that federal entities are behemoths that are slow or even impossible to change, making it unlikely they will be able to adapt to new workforce expectations.

This theory was disproved, however, at the pandemic’s onset when government offices shut down as rapidly as their commercial counterparts and set up their staffs to work from home. Public-sector organizations that continue to embrace such flexibility post-pandemic in terms of when and where work is done will have a substantial perk for attracting younger, highly skilled professionals who require greater work flexibility, autonomy and quality of life.

In turn, by removing the geographic barriers to where work is accomplished — even for some roles that require clearances — government entities can cast a much wider net for recruiting the in-demand IT talent they desperately need.

Certainly, practicing such agility will require a cultural change as well as a mindset change regarding how work is evaluated, with the focus shifting from hours incurred (being on-site from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week, for instance) to performance-based metrics. Nearly 80% of federal and D.C. government employees indicated in a recent survey that their productivity actually increased while teleworking during COVID-19.

Touting the advantages of a civil service career

The public sector cannot compete with private organizations for IT talent if salary is the only consideration. However, the federal government offers benefits that private companies most often do not, including greater job security and highly desirable retirement programs.

Many public sector organizations can also provide needed purpose for younger generations who tend to favor social good over purely profit-driven motivations. For many positions, and especially in IT, these organizations also offer continual training and upskilling, something important to young professionals who want to feel a sense of forward momentum in their careers.

To use these benefits to their advantage, public sector organizations must do a better job of recruiting. Instead of passively posting job titles and descriptions to government job boards, they need to be actively reaching talent where they are, such as through online marketing and social media, as well as on college campuses, with compelling, creative messaging about the benefits and quality-of-life aspects of civil service as a career choice.

For in-demand IT workers especially, speed of hiring is also paramount as many of these professionals have multiple suitors waiting in the wings who equally need human talent and make offers quickly. Public sector organizations must practice agility here as well by changing their slow and tedious hiring processes if they wish to compete.

Modernizing workforce practices must begin now

Historically, organizations in the public sector have not been readily adaptable to change. Fortunately, though, 2020 and 2021 showed that the government can adapt quickly when needed.

This requirement for adaptability is again upon us, only this time it relates to worker acquisition and retention. Another estimate indicates that there are nearly six and a half times more federal employees older than 50 than under 30, meaning that the need to hire skilled employees — both to fill open job slots and to keep our country’s infrastructure and operations up to date — will only continue to rise.

This makes it essential to update government workforce practices, from the recruiting and hiring process all the way to the working environment itself so that it can better meet the requirements of younger workers with different expectations for what they want from their careers. It may also require looking at alternatives to internal hiring for filling talent gaps, such as through professional services organizations that can provide human resources contractually. This is especially true for highly skilled IT talent where the demand is currently far greater than the supply.

Overall, to compete more effectively with the commercial world for in-demand human capital, public sector organizations must have the agility to rethink and reinvent themselves. In the talent game, it’s no longer business as usual.

Joe Thiel is president of Meridian Technologies, an IT workforce and consulting services provider that helps organizations in the commercial market and federal government agencies fuel enterprise transformation. 

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