How federal agencies can attract younger workers to IT

Thursday - 4/29/2010, 8:00pm EDT

Dave Wennergren, DoD deputy CIO and Sandra Smith, Lead for DoD IT Workforce Management

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

What can be done to attract young workers to federal Information Technology?

That question is asked, and answered, in a recent report from the federal CIO Council.

NetGeneration: Preparing for Change in the Federal Information Technology Workforce was recently released and outlines key actions the federal government needs to take if it wants to attract the best and the brightest IT workers.

Dave Wennergren is the Defense Department deputy CIO and vice chairman of the federal CIO Council, and Sandra Smith is the Lead for DoD IT Workforce Management.

Wennergren explained that this is not simply an issue facing DoD.

"There are these two big shifts that are happening simultaneously. The one shift is that the world has changed [into] a world where systems are replaced by service oriented approaches, or the Web 2.0 phenomenon of wikis and blogs and mashups . . . and the movement to the cloud. . . . Then, at the same time, there's a dramatic shift in the workforce. People like me are getting closer and closer to retirement age, and if you look at the actual demographics of the overall population of the country, you have Baby Boomers getting ready to leave; Gen X, which is a smaller population set, and then you have another big boom -- this Generation Y."

In the report, those younger workers are called the 'Net Generation' -- the first generation that grew up in the digital age.

Wennergren explained that the authors of the report took the needs and work habits of this new generation into account when formulating their plans.

"What's the workforce that's going to come to us look like? What are they looking for in terms of how they will get the job done and the tools that they need? We synthesized that together and took a lot of research that's available and talked about how federal agencies really could be employers of choice. That, even despite the perceptions about [the slow hiring process] and things like that, that there are actually tools available that [agencies] could use to be an employer of choice and create the environment where you will unleash the creativity of this young workforce."

One of the interesting findings in the report is that there is a desire among the younger generations of Americans for public service.

Wennergren said, however, the problem often comes with retention, which is where the suggestions in the report come in.

"Yes, the government has work to do. The idea about having the right kind of computing infrastructure where people can be connected from anywhere and be able to do their job from any location. The use of social media and Internet-based capabilities to help drive better collaboration and get capabilities delivered more rapidly are all steps that we're going to have to think about together so we can actually create work environments that foster innovation with the tools that people are used to using in today's world."

Another interesting find had to do with the supposed retirement wave that many have talked about as Baby Boomers get closer to retirement age.

Smith said the data shows that, while the federal government will lose a lot of people, it won't happen all at once.

"We did not see that there's going to be this big tsunami, but we are definitely going to have ebbs and peaks and so forth. So, we have this much smaller Generation X filling in behind the Baby Boomers. This leaves a very large gap to bring in to fill behind that Generation X and, even greater than that, we don't have enough of those people to really replace the Boomers we will eventually be losing. We have to be able to attract this younger generation because, frankly, the competition is growing. When you look at the forecasts, the demand for professionals in the IT workforce is increasing, and yet we have a shrinking labor pool."

Thus, the report emphasizes actions like mentoring in addition to the adoption of new technologies.

Money, of course, is also a factor. While some have raised the point that the private sector can be more attractive in terms of dollar amounts, especially when it comes to IT workers, Wennergren said an annual salary often isn't why someone choose to leave a job.

"People tend to stay in jobs because they like the work that they're doing. It's meaningful to them and they like who they work for and that working relationship. Some of the money stuff helps, especially if you're starting out your career and trying to buy a house or pay rent. There's some things that you could do with retention bonuses and all those kinds of things, but I think the more compelling thing is, you have to really be thoughtful about the nature of the work and the mentoring and leadership that supervisors are doing."

Read more:

Daily Debrief: CIO Council report has ideas on attracting younger feds

DorobekINSIDER: The Federal News Radio Book Club - Grown Up Digital by Don Tapscott

April 2010: CIO Council report: NetGeneration

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