Competition Drives Government To Match Private Sector Incentives

January 1999
By Michelle L. Hankins

High demand for information technology expertise requires innovative ideas to attract experts to public sector employment.

Federal agencies have formulated aggressive campaigns to recruit skilled employees during an era of increased need for information technology professionals. Forced to compete with private industry, these agencies are changing employment packages to lure qualified professionals into the public sector and meet departmental requirements.

The U.S. government is the nation’s largest employer, hiring more than 43,000 employees annually, according to officials at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, or OPM. However, public sector information technology specialists are most needed in areas where mission-critical government systems and the very stability of the country are at risk. First, with its imminent deadline, the year 2000 problem is a central focus as departments scramble to ensure that operations will continue unhindered into the next century. In addition, many systems that are cleared of the danger of the millennium bug are also part of national security efforts aimed at protecting the government’s operations from hackers and malicious cyberattacks. Adding to the challenge is the requirement for each department to have specialists on hand to ensure that glitches in automated processes do not interrupt the government’s ability to provide services to customers.

The result is a wide open job market for technology professionals. Many are opting to work for private industry, which often boasts higher salaries and sign-on bonuses. To match this, government agencies have stepped up benefits packages, offering novel incentives to attract technical experts to public sector employment.

As the human resources arm of the government, OPM establishes hiring policy for federal agencies. Janice R. Lachance, director of OPM, says there is no doubt that the private sector can pay more, but adds that government positions can offer flexibility. Employees are welcomed into a “family friendly” work environment, where, depending on a department’s needs, they can participate in alternative work schedules. While agencies may identify and establish core hours when employees must be at work, individuals may choose to come to work early or to stay late to meet their daily time requirement. Other schedules allow employees to work longer days, up to 9 or 10 hours, and receive days off in exchange.

To allow even greater flexibility, the government allows employees to take advantage of telecommuting options. In areas such as Washington, D.C., where there is a high concentration of commuting government workers, agencies are finding that employees do not have to be on-site to get the job done.

The Defense Department has made a serious commitment to telecommuting options. In May 1996, the department initiated a telecommuting pilot project. Under the program, a central fund was established to underwrite the expenses of telecommuting centers, or telecenters, that act as remote offices. Fifteen of these telecenters are located in Washington, D.C., suburbs. Telecommuting provides significant benefits to employees, employers and to the nation, officials in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy say. These include reduced family stress, increased productivity, decreased sick leave usage and improved health. Approximately 150 Defense Department employees use the telecenters, making it the largest single-agency participant in the telecommuting option.

In addition to flexible schedules, OPM cites generous vacation and sick leave among the benefits of government employment. Workers can receive up to 13 days sick leave annually with up to 26 days of annual leave. And, Lachance says the federal government’s most popular benefit is its health coverage, with a choice of 12 plans, where the government pays an average of 75 percent of the premiums.

Employees do not have to worry about their skills lagging as they might if they worked for a small company, Lachance adds. The government is adamant about professional development. “We will pay for training and lots of it,” OPM’s director says. The Defense Department estimates that it spends up to 2 percent of its payroll on civilian training and professional development programs that mirror those of the military. If an employee desires further education, the government will assist with the associated expenses if they are related to the agency’s mission.

In 1997, the Defense Department created the defense leadership and management program to provide rotational assignment, graduate-level courses in defense management, professional military education and mentoring to mid-level employees. The department has established the position of chancellor of education and professional development to set standards for civilian employees training and education. The department would like to see a smooth transition for information management professionals from entry into civilian Defense Department employment to senior level positions.

With a work force that has decreased from more than 1 million in 1987 to less than 770,000 in 1998, the Defense Department is forced to do more with fewer employees. Over the past several years, the downsizing effort has severely restricted hiring. Combined with the current strong market for technology specialists, the department’s task to find the best employee has become a greater challenge, defense officials say.

Because the higher salaries offered by the private sector are one main factor that entices people away from government employment, OPM has instituted flexible pay options. The Defense Department is one of the many agencies exercising these options to recruit and retain information technology specialists.

Geralynn Hardner, chief of the employment branch at the U.S. Census Bureau, says the agency’s toughest challenge is trying to offer competitive pay. The bureau needs highly skilled mathematical statisticians as well as information technology specialists to maintain operations. Hardner notes that finding skilled employees at the higher pay grade levels is difficult. To address this problem, the government is offering special pay exceptions to specialists. Higher salaries are granted when a department’s operations could be affected if it does not procure specific technical talent. Increases over the existing pay grade may be as much as 30 percent above what would traditionally be offered.

Unlike the shrinking Defense Department work force opportunities, the Census Bureau, nearing its next decennial census, currently has more than 550 open positions. To fill these vacancies, the agency is using OPM’s flexibility to hire new employees that otherwise would be difficult to attract.

Both the Census Bureau and the Defense Department offer sign-on bonuses to employee candidates with a specific specialization that is needed. These bonuses can be as much as 25 percent of the employee’s salary. The Census Bureau can also match offers by commercial employers to recruit potential employees. Hardner says the Census Bureau finds this approach particularly successful among entry-level applicants. In addition, to retain current employees, agencies are authorized to offer retention allowances of up to 25 percent of basic pay.

Quality step increases in the pay grade is another way agencies are retaining valuable employees, and performance and incentive awards are also allowed under OPM guidelines. “Our job is to see that bonuses and rewards are linked to results,” Lachance says.

Federal agencies have simplified the job search process and are now advertising opportunities in an area that is home to information technology professionals—on-line.

Lachance recalls the process job applicants had to go through when she first started at OPM—a process that consisted of going to each individual federal building to look at the fine print on forms. Today, with the help of the Internet, all of that has changed. “Every federal agency is moving at lightning speed toward technology,” Lachance offers.

OPM has created a job database called USA jobs. The site catalogs job openings and allows applicants to send a resumé as well as a list of their qualifications electronically. A special year 2000 jobs site also has been established to recruit for one of the government’s most crucial technology needs.

Both Defense Department and Census Bureau personnel officials say they get many information technology recruits from the database. More than 65,000 resumés are on file with the government, according to Lachance.

The U.S. Department of Labor houses another resource for employers and employees in what is called America’s Job Bank. In this database of resumés, employers can search for people whose skills meet their needs.

But on-line is not the only place where the government is finding its employees. To meet mission-critical functions, U.S. agencies are enticing former government employees who possess much-needed skills to return to work. In a federal outreach program, more than 13,000 letters were sent to information technology specialists to ask them to return to the public sector, according to Lachance.

Lachance says that agencies can wave the dual compensation requirement for former federal employees. If retired from the federal government, workers with specific skills can return to work and receive a full salary without losing retirement benefits, something that had been prohibited in the past.

OPM also operates a training and management program to find and certify contractor personnel. A list of contractors and their skills is maintained by OPM for agencies to use as a resource when looking for employees.

Traditional methods of recruiting from college campuses are big with the Census Bureau, which sends out 80 to 100 recruiters to more than 100 colleges to conduct interviews with students and to meet with college professors. Where possible, OPM pushes the college recruitment effort by placing touchscreen computers on university and college campuses. They are located in a school’s placement office to interest graduating students in pursuing a career in the public sector.

Lachance says that while it is difficult for the government to match salaries that are offered by industry, a public sector position is perfect for the person who is looking for a flexible work environment and benefits. “As an overall package, I’m confident we’re competitive,” she warrants.

With United States as Neighbor, Canada Faces Hiring Challenges

The need for information technology professionals crosses all borders. In Canada, the government not only faces the competitiveness of private industry, but also vies with the United States and the opportunities south of the border that often lure information technology professionals out of the country. To combat this, the Canadian government has made information technology specialist recruitment a priority. Canada’s Public Service Commission, the government’s personnel branch, is working with the chief information officer and information technology and information management communities to identify key shortage areas.

Despite its need for more high-technology professionals, the government is already the single largest employer of computer specialists in Canada, with an increase of up to 10 percent annually in the number employed. The government has close to 10,000 computer specialists, with the largest number working in such departments as Revenue Canada and Statistics Canada. Most work near what is referred to as the Silicon Valley North, around Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

To recruit these professionals, the government has increased external efforts, but has also made its current employees a pool of applicants. Through what the government calls rerecruitment, several agencies are allowing current Canadian government employees to pursue informatics training through an 18-month program to boost skills.

The government’s focus is on preparing the next generation of employees—a process called community renewal. Jim Ewanovich, director, information management and technology, community renewal, chief information officer branch, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Ottawa, says the government is particularly concerned about preparing managers for the future. According to Ewanovich, 35 percent of the government’s managers are eligible to retire by 2002. To field this potential loss of mid- to high-level employees, the government has already put into place an executive development program to train specialists to become managers. With the government’s 15 percent promotion rate, “People tend to get promoted at a fairly good clip,” Ewanovich says.

To deal with its 9 percent attrition rate, the Canadian government has many incentives to retain employees. In addition to traditional incentives such as retention bonuses, insurance benefits and flexible schedules, Ewanovich says the government emphasizes career development among its employees. Many information technology specialists can take advantage of university-level education that is sponsored by the government at local schools.

In Canada, Ewanovich says the government is using the Internet to reduce the bureaucratic processes to recruit the information technology work force. Web-based recruiting is the key to finding skilled employees. Already, the government houses an inventory of more than 1,500 resumés for information technology specialists alone, Ewanovich reports.

“There isn’t this massive shortage that everyone talks about,” Ewanovich says about hiring information technology specialists for Canada’s government. But, he admits, the government is not in a comfortable situation either. The government is always recruiting, always looking for people, he adds.

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