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Government Prepares For Work Force Changes

August 2010
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine
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The U.S. Chief Information Officers Council initiated a review of the federal government’s information technology, or IT, work force and the impact of the Net Generation on agency practices.

Technical advances and an aging population should push organizations to shift policies, attract young workers.

The U.S. federal information technology work force is sandwiched between two major trends it must address to continue successful operations—the retirement eligibility of the Baby Boomer generation and the emergence of Web 2.0. The former threatens to empty hundreds of thousands of positions across the government, while the latter is shifting how the work force thinks about and uses technology. Solutions for both these issues converge in the Net Generation (sometimes referred to as Generation Y or the Millennial Generation), the demographic of youth currently preparing to enter institutions of higher learning and the job market. However, this population group is not a panacea for the government’s problems, because the ideas held by these young adults will challenge the status quo.

The Defense Department reports that 957,000 federal employees are or will become eligible to retire in the next several years, so to prepare proactively for this shifting workplace environment, the Chief Information Officers Council commenced a review of the baseline federal information technology, or IT, work force and current information technology work force management practices. The council, which comprises federal agency chief information officers (CIOs) and deputy CIOs, collaborated with nGenera Insight to take advantage of and expand the company’s research on the Net Generation. The Defense Department’s Chief Information Officer’s office led the effort. The result is a 128-page Net Generation guide that examines the current and future information technology work force and the influences on it, including the expectations and demands of members of the Net Generation. Though the report is focused on the federal information technology work force, it is available, and potentially applicable, to the entire government. The guide is available to the public online.

During a media roundtable, David M. Wennergren, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for information management and technology and the deputy chief information officer for the Defense Department, explained that this young demographic is the prime target for the federal government’s recruitment efforts to fill military and civilian roles as the Baby Boomers retire. Wennergren emphasized that the government information technology community needs to embrace this change as an opportunity and strive to hire top candidates.

One of the largest unknowns in this wave of change is how quickly Baby Boomers will choose to leave their jobs. The present recession may slow down the process, but the report states that “failing to plan for the succession of the current work force would be a significant weakness in strategic human capital management.” The people to fill those slots include 18-year-olds ready to join the enlisted ranks and college graduates who could gain their military commissions or become civil servants.

Wennergren explained that, “As we looked at the demographics, we saw that young people of the Net Generation will be coming into organizations and taking leadership positions at a much younger age. And so we thought it was really important that we understood first what the work force issues are.”

Fortunately for the government, the Net Generation values community and public service. Many are interested in pursuing careers in the public sector as long as they believe that where they work makes a difference and that the job culture supports them with the tools they need and want. Those resources include the capabilities enabled by Web 2.0, such as the ability to work in the cloud, mass collaboration, social networking services, and speed and agility in the delivery of information capabilities.

Wennergren said agencies must evaluate themselves to ensure they provide the type of environment and tools the Net Generation expects. Issues to consider include facilitating an environment in which employees can work from anywhere, as well as access to social networking, instant messaging, chat and collaboration services. Wennergren encouraged leaders to ask, “Are you creating an environment that will really play to their strengths?”

This Web 2.0 revolution, coupled with the need to attract young employees, is forcing alterations in the government’s approach to information technology. Wennergren explained that these changes are moving the government away from building big information technology systems to an environment where people can use and share capabilities all the time. Considered the first generation to grow up with the Internet, Net Geners expect consistent access to and employment of Web 2.0 tools and the resources they offer. In addition to attracting young people to government service, the government must educate current employees who lack the proper skill set for future operations, Wennergren said.

The government in general has been slow to adopt and push the use of new media, especially in the social media arena. However, in recent months progress has been made. In the military, for example, most computer users now are authorized to access social media sites such as Facebook. The military also has been working to develop its own virtual worlds and social networks including Milbook, which is available through the Army Knowledge Online/Defense Knowledge Online portal to account holders.

Perhaps the most critical area of information technology affected by the changes is information security. Even as the military moves to embrace new information-sharing practices, security has forced certain measures that ban particular services. In March, the Air Force implemented restrictions to service-issued BlackBerrys. The changes include eliminating text messages with attached photos and videos and prohibiting the download of applications over the Internet.

Information security and information assurance professionals and jobs are addressed within the report, which breaks down information in various occupational series. The guide states that, “The Information Security or Information Assurance (IA) work force is a subset of the overall IT work force; individual IA members may be resident in many series, but are predominantly in several specialty areas within the 2210 or IT Management series.” Within the IT Management series, information security is identified as one of three federally designated mission-critical occupations. The other two are enterprise architecture and information technology project management.

The 2210 community is relatively new, established in 2001. However, it has grown its number of senior-grade managers over that time as the scope of IT Management duties became more complex. The average age of employees increased, resulting in a large retirement-eligible population in most pay-grade levels. The Net Generation has the highest turnover rate of any employees in this community. In fiscal year 2008, 9 percent, or 271 individuals, of the demographic left federal service. Coupled with transfers, a total of approximately 11 percent of Net Geners “churned” in this series.

Across all generations, retirements account for the bulk of IT Management series personnel attrition. The good news for agencies looking to form a more age-diverse work force is that in fiscal year 2008, 49 percent of those retirements came from the GS-9 to GS-12-related pay scale. The report says this indicates “excellent opportunities for hiring and advancement within the mid-grade levels. With structured work force planning, agencies can create targeted internship programs or laddered hiring opportunities through which they can groom and grow a more generationally balanced work force.”

This type of “glass half full” outlook is the one Wennergren hopes leaders and personnel professionals will have when reading the guide. He explained that the message he gained from the data is that a huge moment of opportunity exists for the federal government. “If we take advantage of the ideas and concepts that are in [the guide], we can really do something wonderful here that’ll be a win-win—great people coming in and having meaningful jobs and making a meaningful contribution to the nation,” Wennergren said. “On the other hand, if we don’t take advantage of this call to action, then we will miss an opportunity to make sure that we have the right work force to meet the demands of our future.”

He further added that if the government rallies “around this idea that if you give people the right tools, the right environment, the right leadership, the right coaching, that there’s this wonderful opportunity to allow the members of the Net Generation to come choose public service as a calling and make a huge difference today.”

With that opportunity, however, comes responsibility to ensure new practices and tools continue to protect critical information within the military and the larger government. Wennergren said that for anyone at any level of government, in academia or private industry to be an effective information leader, they “better have [their eyes] on two prizes at the same time.” Those prizes are information sharing and information security.

The deputy CIO explained that the powers the Web 2.0 world offers can help achieve better results in the defense of the nation, cost efficiencies and speed-to-market ratios. “This prize about being able to share information more quickly and more effectively is absolutely at the top of your list,” he said. “And at the same time, at the top of your list better be this issue about security and how both the threats to our information systems and our information are growing exponentially, by the day, both in terms of quantity and sophistication.”

Information security in the 21st century will differ from that of the past because organizations and individuals no longer can protect themselves by walling out the rest of the world. “The way we used to do security is probably not good enough, and so we’re going to have to have new and creative ideas, which seems to me a sweet spot for the work force of the future,” Wennergren said.

To be effective, organizations must examine what the ability to collaborate across boundaries and the resources that websites such as YouTube and Facebook offer. Wennergren said agencies will have to answer the question of what security issues organizations must become adept at managing to share information effectively while still protecting that information and people. He explained that the government already has recognized this changing nature of security and has taken steps to address it. One example of that is the U.S. Cyber Challenge, a program looking for 10,000 young U.S. citizens to join the ranks of cybersecurity professionals. It aims to nurture and develop these people’s skills, give them access to advanced education and exercises and bring them to the attention of colleges and employers where their skills will benefit the nation (SIGNAL online, http://bit.ly/cwdy1n).

For the Net Generation guide’s information and recommendations—and the programs the government has in place to help address them—to have an actual impact on the nation, Net Geners must pursue technical fields of study and careers. A problem facing both government and industry is a lack of U.S. students choosing to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), resulting in a shortage of qualified personnel in various occupations. Wennergren said that these skill sets are crucial to the work force. Part of the effort of attracting the Net Generation, according to Wennergren, is a call to action for information leaders to encourage the pursuit of studies in STEM fields. “We really do need to have an emphasis on these sorts of skill sets,” he stated. Part of the work the government needs to do is make students aware that if they study these disciplines, then important and meaningful jobs will be waiting for them when they come out of school.

Another facet of the personnel problem is a worry that India and China will produce far more computer engineers than the United States in the years ahead. One way the United States could make up that difference is through advanced technology. Wennergren said that with the right tools, users achieve more, better and faster. “Clearly we have a very large Department of Defense, but it’ll be more agile the more we’re able to use technology,” he explained. “The technology of the future and how you would leverage it to maximize your effectiveness is a fundamental point in the report. In consonance with that, if you’re making sure you have the right technology in place to have a highly effective, highly mobile, highly connected work force, then in parallel we’d like to attract and retain the best and the brightest.”

WEB RESOURCES
Net Generation Guide: www.cio.gov/Documents/NetGen.pdf
U.S. Cyber Challenge: www.uscyberchallenge.org
Chief Information Officers Council: www.cio.gov
nGenera Insight: www.ngenera.com/insight