Agencies urged to change workplace practices to attract young workers

In a study on the federal technology job market, the CIO Council suggests managers should beef up technology, flexible schedules and employee feedback to compete for computer specialists.

Agencies face a daunting task of recruiting and retaining young workers to fill computer-related positions as older technology specialists retire, a trend that requires managers to drastically change long-established bureaucratic work environments and traditions, according to a recent report by the federal Chief Information Officers Council.

In one of the most extensive studies on the federal information technology job market, the council warned that agencies will face a steady exodus of retiring computer specialists, scientists and engineers, as well as electronics engineers and telecommunications specialists at a time when the government is pursuing large modernization programs and policies dependent on advanced Internet technologies.

"Clearly one of the things we want to do with the report is create a sense of urgency around the idea that we have to change to attract and retain workers," said Dave Wennergren, deputy CIO at Defense Department and co-chairman of the CIO Council. "There are these two compelling issues that face us today: One is the world has changed, and the other is the power of being in an organization that understands the Web 2.0 phenomenon and how it will move us radically away from being an organization that took many, many months or years to build out a classic IT system to a world where these information capabilities are mashed together on the fly."

The 128-page report, titled "Net Generation," found that more than 108,000 federal workers were employed in IT positions in fiscal 2009. The council didn't predict how many of those workers would retire in the coming years, but warned "there is a great potential for a cascade of retirements over the next decade or more." Nearly 957,000 federal workers will become eligible to retire between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2016, with an estimated 586,000 choosing to leave government, the council reported. The authors of the report said it will be available on the council's Web site soon.

To backfill the IT positions, agencies will have to attract a large number of young workers between 17 and 31 years old, the generation known as the Net Generation or millennials. The report urges federal managers to change long-standing workplace mores and practices to become an employer of choice.

The Net Generation is a cohort that grew up with the Internet and expects to work with cutting-edge technologies and online applications, such as social networking sites, mash-ups, online gaming and virtual worlds. Citing findings by the research firm nGenera, the report said this group expects flexible work schedules, consistent feedback, mentoring and immediate responsibility.

"You are going to have to think differently. The skills of your past are maybe not the skills that you need for the future," said Wennergren. "The approaches of the past maybe are not the approaches of the future if you want to be a world-class organization."

Federal managers should begin to develop onboarding programs that provide an initial work experience that meets Net Generational workers' needs, Wennergren said. That includes giving them opportunities for training, alternative work schedules, frequent recognition and quick advancement.

"This workforce is highly dedicated, highly committed," he said. "If you can give them work experiences where they really feel like they're contributing and making a difference you'll keep them, as opposed to if you just put them in some bureaucratic growth chain that takes a long time before you feel like you are making a difference."

The report cites research showing the government has a hard job in recruiting younger professionals. The No. 1 goal cited in surveys of Net Generation workers is to make money. The Top 10 organizations they would like to work for did not include any government agencies in 2009. The State Department, NASA, the Peace Corps and the CIA all made the Top 10 list in previous years.

"One of the themes in the report is that there is a desire to serve," Wennergren said. "Part of what we have to do is emphasize the importance and value of public service. Then when we get them we have to provide them with the right kinds of computer tools and social media that nurtures their strengths, and use these tools to innovate."

In addition, the report warns that the demand for IT workers will increase in the coming years, as the private sector seeks to hire more tech workers, making it more difficult for agencies to attract younger people. The trend requires agencies to change, because if they don't they face a difficult future of trying to meet their missions.

"We weren't trying to paint a grim picture, but we did want to make sure people had the facts at their disposal to see the reality of the situation and it's a call to action, if you will," Wennergren said. "Given that, hopefully then you will read through it and see how you can use the tools and some of this information to help give you a leg up on how do you find them, how do you attract them and how do you keep them."

Most of the report was researched and developed by members in the Defense CIO office where Wennergren works, including Sandy Smith, IT workforce lead; Joyce France, director of CIO management services; Lois Gruendl, a support staffer in CIO management services; and Steve Sasser, graphic designer. Wennergren said the report, which features photos of young government IT workers, was designed by federal employees in the Net Generation.

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