Why Are Federal IT Workers So Miserable?

Aleutie/Shutterstock.com

Federal techies report being overworked, undertrained and eyeing the exits.

More than one-third of federal information technology workers don’t think their organizations can recruit top talent. Fewer than half are satisfied with the training they receive on the job. And a sizable chunk of federal techies say they may not stick around much longer.

The gloomy picture of life as a federal IT specialist comes from the 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the annual barometer of federal employee sentiment released Tuesday by the Office of Personnel Management.

Overall, federal employee morale is on the mend after bottoming out last year. But federal techies aren’t bouncing back so quickly.

Federal officials know they have a problem on their hands.

The survey “helps us understand the problem,” with federal IT workers, acting OPM Director Beth Cobert told reporters during an Oct. 6 conference call. “It doesn't give us the answers to the problem.”

Among occupations deemed at risk for staffing gaps, federal IT specialists reported the lowest employee engagement scores, which measures employees’ sentiment across a range of factors.

Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Results

Just 37 percent of IT specialists said their agencies are able to recruit people “with the right skills,” according to the survey. Only about 34 percent said they aren’t satisfied with the level of training they receive for their jobs, and 39 percent said they aren’t given opportunities to improve their skills once on the job.

In all those areas, IT specialists rank below other “mission-critical” occupations -- which also includes contractor specialists and economists -- as well as the general federal workforce.

More broadly, employees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math reported heavier workloads than the broader workforce and also complained of insufficient resources to properly do their jobs.  

Perhaps most troubling, more than one-third of IT workers -- 37 percent -- say they aren’t planning to stay with their organizations.

Budget Woes, Training Cuts

So, what’s behind the morale drag on federal IT employees?

Well, for one thing, it’s always been a struggle for the government to recruit and retain top-flight tech talent.

In the technology field, there are three key elements that keep employees engaged in their work, according to research by CEB, a member-based consulting firm based in Arlington, Virginia: a strong commitment to innovation, exposure to advanced technologies and work-life balance.

The government generally only gets high marks on the latter, said Kris van Riper, a practice leader at CEB.

Couple that with the budget belt-tightening and short-term funding measures agencies have weathered in recent years, and it’s a “perfect storm,” for drooping morale, said Van Hitch, former longtime chief information officer of the Justice Department.

When agencies can't hire top talent, it can have a "depressing impact" on an organization, said Hitch, who’s now an adviser with Deloitte’s federal practice. "You can't get the skills necessarily that you need; you many need to hire a systems architect or you may need to hire five cybersecurity people and you can't get them. Those are very scarce skills."

Technology is a constantly evolving field, and employees need to keep their skills fresh. Federal employee training has also fallen victim to governmentwide budget cuts in recent years.

“In IT, you live by the skills you have” Hitch told Nextgov. “So, training is a very important part of an IT career. And when that training kind of dies on the vine, then that's another cause for concern."

The lack of training isn’t just making IT specialists rustier at their jobs. It may be making them miserable.

“When people get the right training, then they are happier employees,” said Tim LeFleur with the International Association of IT Asset Managers. “They feel more equipped to handle the curve balls that are going to come up on the job. . . We’ve seen people really take off and soar when they get the right training.” LeFleur, whose organization includes members at many large federal agencies, said he was speaking in general and had not had time to look closely at the OPM survey results.  

Eyeing the Exits

Perhaps most concerning, more than one-third of federal techies say they’re actively eyeing the exits. Just 63 percent of IT respondents say they’re planning to stay with their organizations.

Unlike some other mission-critical occupations, IT workers possess skills that translate well to the private job market.

“Particularly given the improvement in the labor market and in the D.C. IT labor market since 2008, there are just more options for them externally,” van Riper told Nextgov. “So, you worry that the people who are most talented are the ones that may be looking, and they're the ones that have probably the easiest chance of landing something on the private sector side.

The survey findings are the first to come out since the Obama administration initiated its “Smarter IT Delivery” agenda last May. A big focus of that agenda is getting “world-class” digital talent to sign up for tours of duty with the government, coordinated by the White House’s U.S. Digital Service team.

The effort appears to be having an impact and shows the government can compete for top talent in certain circumstances, van Riper said.

“One of the things we know about hiring and about employee engagement is connection to mission,” van Riper said. “And having the opportunity to serve your government is an extremely motivating factor for the highest-quality IT people. So, done in the right way, the government can recruit very high-quality IT people by highlighting the fact that you will get to have an impact that you could never have working in a private sector company."

Along with a similar team at the General Services Administration, the White House team now numbers more than 120 staffers and is on track to hit 500 by the end of next year, according to a recent report in Government Technology. But even if the ranks swell to that level, the digital teams will only ever be a small subset of the thousands of the programmers, computer engineers and developers who make up the federal IT workforce.

"Overall, that is going to be a small percentage of the total federal IT population,” van Riper said. “And so there has to be other opportunities to develop in place and to be given the skills and opportunities to work with new technologies."

(Image via Aleutie/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.