Rewriting the Recruiting Rules

Rewriting the Recruiting Rules

Don Upson

By Marianne Dunn Staff Writer

Where can IT recruiters find a steady supply of bright, motivated, technologically capable and cheap new workers? Nina McMillan found hers in the land of homecoming floats, cafeteria ladies and term papers: high school.

McMillan is chief of computer and customer support services for the undersecretary of defense for acquisition technology, and assistant secretary for command, control, communications and intelligence. She rewrote her department's education and experience requirements, enabling its vendors to use high school students and workers with little previous paid experience on contracts, said Don Upson, Virginia's secretary of technology.

"She created a new labor category," said Upson. With the backing of vendors, including Advanced Systems Development Inc. of Arlington, Va., Computer Information Technology Inc. of Phoenix, Cost Management Systems Inc. of Vienna, Va., and Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas, McMillan contacted Washington-area high schools to determine if any students would be qualified to work with the government contractors. She found Chantilly High School Academy was offering the training her contractors required.

"I never think inside the box," said McMillan. "I always think out of the box, and I dare anyone to try and put me in the box."

Most federal contracts specify minimum education and experience requirements. Upson said that in light of the information technology work force shortage, those requirements should be dropped and federal contractors allowed to use their best judgment in hiring employees to work on government projects.

"The company's reputation is on the line, so they are going to perform well," said Upson. "Why should a company in the federal sector not be allowed to take advantage of having a senior project manager who is 23 years old?"

Upson said under the old standards, it would be nearly impossible for high school and college students to meet both the education and experience requirements.

McMillan said her office was first affected by the IT worker shortage in 1997. She said she was looking for ways contractors could cut their costs and pass the savings on to her. But, she said, turnover was high, and new hires were commanding ever-increasing salaries.

"We looked at the contract vehicles and recommended a labor category of less experience and no [advanced] education, and that brought down the costs," she said.

EDS hired its first high school intern in January 1998. So far, the high school interns have been Chantilly High School Academy students.

Mario Suarez, EDS project manager, said he was skeptical at first. "I was one of the largest skeptics, until I went out to Chantilly," he said. "The computer labs were far superior to many of the government agencies that I've worked in."

And many of the high school students already have earned certifications that potential candidates for jobs lack.

"It is extremely difficult to find a Cisco-certified engineer out in the work force, and the students are reaching it at the high school level," Suarez said. "I was quickly turned around, and now I am one of the biggest believers in the program."

Suarez said he outlined the skill set he expected from an intern and submitted the list to the academy.

"The academy looked at our requirements, filtered the candidates and gave us resumes of the qualified students," he said. The potential interns are interviewed, and the most qualified candidate is offered the position. The interns are paid according to their skills, he said, but they do not expect the high salaries of college graduates with years of experience.

Today, EDS and ASD each have a high school intern working on projects under McMillan's direction. The EDS intern, senior Gurdeep Matharoo, started his internship last January. ASD's intern was slated to start Oct. 1.

"This program has been great for us," said McMillan. The young interns have helped keep her costs down because the vendors do not have to pay as high a salary to the high school students compared to a college graduate with five years of experience.

And, she said, the students also motivate current employees.

"A lot of these kids come in A certified, and many are working on their MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certificate]," said McMillian. "A lot of full-time analysts are not working on their MCSE, so it really challenges them to get on the ball."

In the long run, Suarez said, everyone comes out a winner. The intern gains valuable experience, and the federal agency enjoys more continuity of service with its contractors when interns become veteran employees. And EDS gets a chance to evaluate potential employees.

"If everything works out well, we will extend them a job offer," said Suarez. The goal is to recruit high school juniors so they can intern for two years before leaving for college. As college students, he said, they can return to EDS to work in the more traditional internships. During each stint, the intern accrues time toward future benefits.

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