State Recruiters Stress Service, Lifestyle to Lure IT Employees

State Recruiters Stress Service, Lifestyle to Lure IT Employees

Suzanne Peck

By Gail Repsher, Staff Writer

Employers poaching their competitors' employees to fill vacancies. Employees hopping from one job to another to increase their salaries exponentially. Employers offering extravagant perks to keep their hard-won workers.

These scenarios are commonplace in the private sector as companies vie for information technology workers in a tight labor market. State governments, however, have it worse, according to a report to be published this fall by the nonprofit Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky.

The report details the results of a 1999 CSG survey of state IT administrators' practices in recruitment and retention. The report, "Recruitment and Retention of Technical Employees in State Government," found that all but two states have a shortage of technology workers, and that administrators most often cite low base salary, lack of qualified applicants and poor image of civil service as hiring obstacles. Respondents also said inability to award bonuses and other incentives is a problem.

The most recent Computerworld study of tech worker compensation, published in September 1999, found that in 22 of 23 job classifications, the average government worker's compensation was lower than the average for all workers in the classification.

"It is very, very difficult" to recruit workers, said Suzanne Peck, the District of Columbia's chief technology officer. Peck cited record low unemployment, competition for IT workers in the Washington region and the constraints of municipal salary structures as hiring barriers.

"These two years, I have called up and begged my friends," Peck said, "and they have called their friends" in the search for new city government employees.

Forty-four of 49 survey respondents said their shortages of IT workers were either regular or chronic. Only Kansas, New Jersey, New York and Washington state reported occasional shortages.

Recruitment and retention of IT workers is the No. 1 issue among Colorado's 23 state agencies, said Paul Quade, Colorado's chief information officer.

"Stock options and bonuses are very attractive to [candidates], and that's not as easy to do in state government," he said.

Because of their dire need for workers, state employers increasingly take cues from the private sector in order to find and keep qualified employees, according to the study and interviews with state technology executives and recruiters.

Six states reported that they use commercial headhunters. Nearly half reported that they advertise on Web job sites. Some have created their own Web sites. Two states reported that they employ a full-time IT recruiter.

State agencies also are relying on perks that private, commercial organizations "would have a more difficult time offering, like flex time and telecommuting, even touting the virtues, sense of pride you may have in civil service," said Ed Janairo, training coordinator in CSG's IT department.

In a tight labor market, employers must be creative, said Jennifer Gebert, recruitment coordinator for Wisconsin.

"It's not easy [recruiting], but I've been able to implement a lot of new things that have made hiring easier," said Gebert, a former contract IT recruiter in Redmond, Wash. She was hired in 1998 by a cooperative of Wisconsin state agencies concerned about their abilities to attract IT talent.

Gebert has instituted several recruiting techniques common to private-sector firms but not widely seen in the public sector.

For instance, Wisconsin's state agencies conduct onsite interviews at technology career fairs and can make tentative offers on the spot. At one fair this year, 11 senior-level IT professionals were hired. The state made two more hires at a New York event put on by the NAACP.

To attract recruits to job fairs, Gebert advertises on the radio. She has learned to appeal to the listening audience by noting that hiring managers will be onsite and using the technical buzzwords that techies like.

The results, she said, have been "fabulous."

Next month Wisconsin will begin listing all its state jobs on techies.com, a national Web job site. Users looking for jobs in Wisconsin will automatically receive e-mail announcements of new state openings.

"We recognize we need more employees than what Wisconsin has. I think this will really help tech professionals find us," Gebert said.

According to the study, 30 states have restructured their pay and job classification systems for IT staff in order to attract workers.

Wisconsin practices what the state calls broadbanding, which allows hiring managers flexibility in assigning salaries. Previously, all workers at a certain level might be paid $40,000. Now, the hiring manager can judge employees' qualifications and assign salaries in the $40,000 to $60,000 pay range, Gebert said.

In Kansas, an executive order has allowed state agencies to award various bonuses that have substantially decreased turnover rates, which in some agencies were more than 33 percent. Its initiatives received two national awards last year.

"In the agencies that really got aggressive about [the program], their turnover rates dropped by 300 percent," said Don Heiman, director of the Division of Information Systems and Communications in Kansas' Department of Administration and the executive branch's chief information officer.

New employees with critically needed skills can get signing bonuses of up to $3,000, and current state employees who recruit others can get up to $500. There are also bonuses available for employees with specific, mission-critical skills and for those who have acquired new skills that can equal up to 10 percent of base pay.

Agencies must fund the bonuses from their existing budgets. Heiman said the program should not increase expenses, and may, in fact, save money.

In Heiman's division, workers have been taking advantage of the skills acquisition incentive, and their new skills have allowed Heiman to cut back on consulting services. Heiman also saw his turnover rate drop from 28 percent to 6.7 percent.

Peck also uses some creative pay practices to lure IT professionals.

"To seed the most senior positions requires inventiveness and reaching out to private industry for resources that the district's personnel structure just doesn't support," she said.

For example, Washington can exchange IT executives with private industry and pay the private industry executives their regular salaries, even if they are above the government's pay scale. Employees who accept hard-to-fill positions may be eligible for a residency waiver, allowing them to live outside the city.

And in September, the district will launch an adopt-an-agency program where private-industry partners will be asked to donate IT workers to city government.

While state IT executives and recruiters agreed that bonuses and flexible pay structures are vital to their recruiting efforts, their most valuable tools are nonmonetary.

"I think the most important thing are the values, the working conditions, the commitment to training and development, the flexibility, allowing for telecommuting," Heiman said. "Even though there might be a decline in pay, [employees] like the work environment, so they recruit others."

According to the CSG report, 12 states allow telecommuting, 11 states use flexible schedules and 11 states help pay for further education.

Working on interesting projects using state-of-the-art technologies is also key, state executives said.

"What keeps them with us," Peck said, "is that the work really is exciting, and all technologists live for the work."

Attitude and ambiance also matter a lot, Peck said, especially because she can't offer bonuses, and the top salary, $139,000, is hers. In the private sector, that amount might go to a project manager, not someone running an entire organization.

"That's government," she said. "We've got to emulate [the private sector anyway]." Peck does that by creating a pleasant environment, an atmosphere akin to "a Fortune 50 company," she said. The district's art commission provides artwork, cleaning services do a stellar job and employees take excellent care of their work areas.

Sometimes, a stable environment means the most, Gebert said.

"We're not a dot.com," she said, "so I can't offer the hope of being a multimillionaire because the stock goes through the roof, but not everyone is looking for that. We are always going to be in business, and we don't make our people spend the night here."

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