Each year, the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) conducts a survey of state CIOs to identify and prioritize their top policy and technology issues. For 2015, IT talent management ranked number 6. NASCIO identified these pressure points and action areas:

Human Resources/Talent Management: human capital/IT workforce; workforce reduction; attracting, developing and retaining IT personnel; retirement wave planning; succession planning; support/training, portal for workforce data and trends

In its “State IT Work Force: Facing Reality with Innovation” survey that was released April 16, NASCIO presented some alarming figures:

  • Nearly 92 percent of states say salary rates and pay grade structures present a challenge in attracting and retaining IT talent.
  • 86 percent of states are having difficulty recruiting new employees to fill vacant IT positions.
  • 46 percent of states report that it is taking 3 to 5 months to fill senior level IT positions.
  • A shortage of qualified candidates for state IT positions is hindering 66 percent of states from achieving strategic IT initiatives.     

Hiring and salary freezes are feeding talent shortages at the local level, says James Quin, senior director of content and C-suite communities at CDM Media. He says the freezes make it difficult to both attract and retain talent. “As a result, these government IT departments tend to be understaffed and staffed by an aging workforce. The biggest challenge is, of course, overcoming hiring freezes. The inability to bring in more staff, or even to replace departing staff, is a critical issue,” Quin told GPN.

He says removing freezes is an issue that requires careful negotiation between senior IT management and elected officials. CDM is a global think tank and conference facilitator for CIOs.

Baby boomers that make up the majority of local government managers are approaching retirement at a quickening pace, say experts at the Next Generation program at the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). A much smaller group of young and career-changing professionals are in line and prepared to fill the shoes of the exiting managers, say the experts. There just aren't enough qualified candidates. The Next Generation program aims to attract and develop a wide and diverse group of people into the local government management profession.

Location affects IT talent shortage

There is an IT skills shortage, says Brian Moura (photo at right), administrative services advisor at Carmel Valley, Calif.-based Regional Government Services (RGS), former assistant city manager for the city of San Carlos, Calif. and an ICMA life member. RGS is a government agency that provides administrative, support and staffing services to other California public agencies.

Moura says the skill shortage is especially acute when there is not a base of IT professionals in the area. “In these cases, the agency’s recruitment often draws attention to the benefits of living in the area – things like recreational opportunities, parks, amenities, schools, community features – vs. just focusing on the position duties. Moura explains, “In other areas, like here in Silicon Valley, it hasn’t been as much of an issue given the large pool of IT professionals in the area and some of the benefits of working for a local government agency vs. the private sector (job security, benefits, career path and opportunities).”

The government work environment needs to be modified to aid in recruiting, says Charlie Gerhards, co-director, Government Technology Institute at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pa. He formerly served as state CIO in Pennsylvania. Gerhards says governments are sometimes rigid with countless rules dating back decades.

“More time is spent worrying about process than outcomes. The goal becomes making sure someone is sitting at their desk for eight hours each day than what is accomplished during the day,” Gerhards says. “Why not provide specific goals and allow employees some flexibility in determining how best to accomplish the goal?” he asks. 

The new NASCIO survey shows IT administrators are becoming less rigid. About 74 percent of respondents say they are implementing flexible work options as a strategy to retain IT staffers. Working from home is sometimes one of the work options. 

When an agency has an opening, IT chiefs should look closely at the job description, says the RGS’ Moura. He cites his recent experience working with Santa Clara, Calif., to update a web manager position. 

“It was recast as the Web and Digital Media Manager, with new skills added in areas like working with employees and managers across the agency, assessing problems and developing solutions, marketing and communications, social media experience plus media and graphics skills.”

The results were positive, Moura says. “These changes, plus targeting non-traditional recruitment approaches, brought in a number of very qualified applicants that in many cases had not applied for a public sector position before, yet were very in tune with what the city was looking for.”

One of the non-traditional approaches that Moura and Santa Clara hiring managers used was to cast a wide net. They used private sector job sites to recruit candidates vs. traditionally local government-focused job sites and channels. Some of the sites used: Dice, Craigslist, JobTarget, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Skills needed in local government

There’s a growing need for big data experts, says Fitz Hoskins, former director of communications services with Baltimore, Md. “Local governments will increasingly need IT professionals with skills in the analysis and processing of big data, as well as developers for data analytics platforms, like Apache Hadoop and Cloudera.” 

Hoskins says cities are trying to capitalize on the huge amounts of data in their possession, and will have to recruit IT professionals skilled in these areas. Hoskins is a Mid-Atlantic CIO practice professional with Tatum, a Randstad company and interim executive talent firm.

Several skills are at the top of Chris Kohlmann’s list of needed areas of IT expertise in government. Kohlmann is Dubuque Iowa’s Information Services Manager. “In terms of data - I think IT is the part of the organization tasked with cataloging and insuring integrity and interoperability between silos of information, Kohlmann tells GPN. “Too often, IT sees itself as the entity tasked only with physically caring for the storage and availability of data.”

According to Kohlmann, “In my opinion, the only way for this to improve is greater emphasis in IT education on database design and the very boring and seemingly outdated concepts like entity-relationship modeling.”

Yes, city and state government IT departments are seeing valued staff exit via retirement. But Gerhards says the outflow of long-time career employees can provide new opportunities for organizations. “Making needed changes to organizations and operations is always a difficult process. However, if such changes are timed with new incoming staff, the changes can be easier to implement. So loss of staff can be both a challenge and an opportunity for the future.” Many governments are finding that to be true in 2015.

Michael Keating is Senior Editor at Government Product News, an American City & County sister brand.

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