State Year 2000 Hiring Crisis Looms

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State Year 2000 Hiring Crisis Looms

By Dennis McCafferty
Staff Writer

When it comes to the pending year 2000 computer crisis, state government officials have fared better than their federal counterparts in public perception with respect to confronting the problem, industry leaders say.

But those state government officials are facing a perplexing dilemma they share with the federal government: the recruitment and retention of programming talent to correct the problem. And there are no easy solutions, state leaders say.

Despite the good benefit offerings and the opportunity for accelerated responsibilities within the state IT arena, government officials say they can't compete with private industry salaries. State governments can offer about $60,000 to $80,000 tops compared with the six-digit salaries that private industry pays, one state official said.

"We're seeing that it's harder and harder to fill positions,'' said state of Washington Chief Information Officer Steve Kolodney, who oversees year 2000 issues for the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Information Resource Executives. "It's both a result of the year 2000 crunch and the demand it's created. But it's also ... because our economy is hot here in the land of Microsoft and Boeing, and throughout the country.''

And, while many CIOs concede that quick-fix remedies can only stem the exodus in small increments, many states are sweetening the pot and coming up with innovative ways to woo and keep programming talent. They're making it easier to attain senior-level status, to boost clout and salaries. Overtime restrictions are being relaxed. Legislation has been passed to do away with barriers preventing state retirees from coming back to work.

In the state of Arizona, IT officials are talking about busing in ex-programmers from the Sun City retirement community near Phoenix.

"We've been talking about bringing them in, giving them punch and cookies and putting them back to work,'' joked Art Ranney, the state's oversight manager for IT projects and the year 2000 correction plan.

Tongue-in-cheek comments aside, Ranney said Arizona is confronting a real problem without any easy solutions - an assessment that typifies those seen in other states. About 40 percent of the state's year 2000 correction work is being outsourced. Contract workers are getting $45 to $50 an hour, or up to $15 more an hour than a year ago. Within the year, that cost is expected to increase by another $20, Ranney said.

Arizona lawmakers have approved, for the first time, a $17 million special allotment to agencies to deal with year 2000 corrections. Previously, as in the federal government, existing funds in the state of Arizona were expected to shoulder the cost. Ranney anticipates asking for at least another $12 million next year. Increased funding will pay to promote in-house programmers to senior-level staff, boosting pay by up to 15 percent.

"It's not just that we're losing people and the people that we hire are getting bigger and bigger wages,'' Ranney said. "It's that the closer the year 2000 comes, the more serious it's going to get. Then, more people are going to bail on us.''

A NASIRE survey completed last year indicated early trouble signs. Officials responding from the states of Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming indicated that skilled labor and vendor services to address year 2000 issues were hard to find. Only California and New Mexico reported that they had developed an incentive program to retain good year 2000-based programmers.

Now, many state officials are finding that the recruitment and retention issue is among the most perplexing in dealing with year 2000 systems compliance.

"It's not drying up so much with respect to the pool of people in state government, but it's drying up the pool of people who want to come there,'' said John Kost, a senior vice president at McLean, Va.-based Federal Sources Inc. who tracks state government IT developments. "That's where the state governments will feel the hit, in hiring people. I think you'll see it hit in the middle of next year. It's not at crisis proportions yet, but I think people see it coming.''

In one hiring area, Kost said, the situation discourages young "hotshot'' programmers from coming on board, and will likely bring disillusionment to another breed of recruit who turn to state government: the more idealistic, public service-oriented "achiever.'' This will force states to turn even more to outsourcing to get the job done, Kost said.

There appears to be very little united activity among state leaders nationwide to come up with strategies to overcome the competition with private industry. A summit is being planned for October in Pittsburgh, but that event will focus on whether federal agencies' systems will be compatible with those of state agencies after the year 2000. There's little talk of a remedy for the states to be applied nationwide, officials say.

"This isn't a subject that lends itself well to a national discussion, except to say that it's a problem,'' Kolodney said. "Each state appears to be handling it in its own way. The laws in each state are very particular. The legislative philosophies are very different.''

So states are left to creative autonomy.

The state of Pennsylvania is allowing management - previously barred from overtime - time and a half for working longer hours on the year 2000 problem. Texas has approved $5,000 in annual bonuses for programmers who stay through May 2000. In Oregon, vacancy rates in agencies have climbed as high as 30 percent with respect to year 2000-based staff. State lawmakers approved of legislation that provides the training of clerical staff to do programming work.

"This legislation says we must come up with a game plan to recruit, train and maintain qualified people to work on the year 2000,'' said Mike Zanon, interim CIO for the state.

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