The Government’s Struggle to Hire Young Tech Talent is Worse Than You Thought

There’s only one under-30 IT specialist working in agencies for every four who are over 60 years old.

In the federal IT workforce, the number of employees age 60 or older is more than quadruple the number of specialists under the age of 30, according to a Nextgov analysis.

The government employed roughly 1.8 IT workers age 60 or older for every IT employee under 30 years old in 2007, but that ratio more than doubled over the next 10 years, widening to 4.5 IT specialists age 60-plus per employee under 30 by 2017.

The analysis used data gathered from OPM’s FedScope portal on government workers employed under series 2210 positions, designated as “Information Technology Management.” Employees were broken down into 10 age groups; the youngest being 20 to 24 years old and the oldest ages 65 and older. To understand how the age gap has changed over the years, Nextgov calculated the annual ratio of IT employees age 60 and older to those in their 20s from 2007 to 2017.

The IT workforce grew significantly during that period, expanding from about 65,200 employees in 2007 to more than 84,400 by 2017. As many specialists approach retirement, most agencies are struggling to find fresh faces to take their place.

In recent years, the ratio of feds ages 60 and older to those under 30 showed annual growth of about 0.39, beginning at 1.92-to-1 in 2010 and eventually reaching 4.53-to-1 in September 2017.

Nextgov found the trend has been driven almost exclusively by an increase in older employees rather than a decrease in younger workers.

The government has employed between 2,500 and 4,000 IT specialists under 30 every year for the last decade, but since 2007, the number of retirement-age federal tech workers more than doubled from about 5,300 to more than 11,500 in 2017.

The issue of aging employees isn’t unique to IT—the median age of the federal workforce has climbed from 30 to 42 since the late 1980s. But while workers have gotten older all across government, the age gap in IT has been especially stark.

The ratio of feds ages 60 and older to those under 30 nearly doubled from 1.08-to-1 in 2007 to 2.03-to-1 in 2017, but even so, the widening disparity pales in comparison to the growing age gap in IT positions.

Why Is This Happening?

The pronounced age disparity in federal IT stems largely from the fact that hiring for tech positions is more of an uphill battle than hiring for jobs other fields.

For someone looking to work in policy or diplomacy, the federal government presents opportunities that few other places can, but people in tech can lead successful careers in Washington, Silicon Valley and virtually everywhere in between.

As a result, federal agencies compete more directly with the private sector when recruiting young tech talent than they do elsewhere. With their closely scrutinized payrolls and regimented career ladders, agencies often have a tough time winning out over private companies with deeper pockets.

“Quite frankly, government really can’t afford to pay as much as the private sector in terms of salary and recruitment incentives,” said Glorimar Maldonado, chief recruitment officer at the Health and Human Services Department. While hiring managers are “blessed” with the funds to offer signing bonuses, student loan repayment and other incentives “every blue moon,” she said, tightening budgets have made it tougher to attract young employees.

The talent gap extends beyond government to the entire job market, particularly in the cybersecurity field. With hundreds of thousands of cyber positions going unfilled nationwide, the demand for tech specialists far exceeds the supply. In an increasingly competitive job market, cash-strapped agencies find themselves at an even bigger disadvantage when battling for talent against more resource-rich organizations.

Government also faces a number of unique factors beyond pay that limit its appeal to young techies. For example, unlike private companies that have the flexibility to quickly offer positions to qualified applicants, the federal hiring process can leave them waiting for months to hear back about the job.

That’s if there’s even a job available. Maldonado said young job seekers have taken notice of the recent federal hiring freezes, which have made them more concerned about whether they can find a position at HHS or other agencies.

And the heavy budget constraints that came with the hiring freeze have spread outreach resources increasingly thin, according to Maldonado. She noted that since the beginning of the Trump administration, some applicants have questioned whether minority groups will be welcome in government at all, so exposing those communities to job opportunities at HHS has become even more crucial.

“The administration change, with that hiring freeze being put into place, it was discouraging for a lot of folks,” she said. “It really requires a lot of flexibility, adaptability, creativity to be able to take whatever’s handed to us and turn it around and make it palatable to folks on the outside.”

What’s the Problem?

As a wave of IT employees approach retirement, officials have recognized the importance of building a pipeline to bring in the young employees who will become future leaders in federal tech. Many agencies haven’t done enough to create that pipeline, which can create a problem as the country confronts new technological threats, said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, in a conversation with Nextgov.

But young tech talent serves a purpose that goes beyond simply filling empty desks with bodies. Because millennials have grown up with technology, Hurd said they’re uniquely equipped to deal with the changing digital environment.

“The technological changes that we’ll see in the next 20 years will make the last 20 years look insignificant,” said Hurd. “Bringing in digital natives and people that have been trained in the latest, greatest tactics, techniques and procedures … that’s valuable.”

Emerging technology like the internet of things will create new digital threats, which will drive up the demand for top-notch cyber talent even further in the years ahead, said Andrew Smallwood, who leads a cyber-focused human capital team at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Smallwood believes the constantly evolving nature of the IT field creates a unique situation where a lack of experience may be beneficial. In other words, younger specialists are not only more comfortable around new tech but may also be better qualified to address its threats.

“In a traditional occupation, the more time and experience you have with something means that you tend to be more expert at it,” he said. “In cyber that tends to not be true. The technology is moving so quickly that those who are coming straight out of undergraduate education may have newer and more relevant skills than someone who graduated four or five years ago.”

Like anyone new to the government space, young employees also bring new perspectives to the table. Generational diversity allows agencies to see their missions from a different angle and brings fresh energy to workplace culture, Maldonado said.

“It’s really easy as a fed to become jaded,” she told Nextgov. “We need to get folks from outside of government in. It’s bringing folks in that can revive you a bit and challenge the accepted thinking.”

Is There a Solution?

As investigations uncover how foreign powers went online to meddle in U.S. elections and a series of high-profile cyberattacks highlight the changing security landscape, government officials have begun approaching the IT age gap with a new sense of urgency.

OPM recently hosted a hiring fair that attracted more than 2,500 job seekers looking for federal cyber and tech positions. Maldonado, who attended the event, said she was able to hire a couple dozen people on the spot. Beyond hiring events, she said agencies should continue collaborating to build the pipelines and strengthen the IT workforce without “making excuses for the drop off.”

“I could talk about the hiring freeze and budgetary constraints all day long, but what else are we doing to make sure we’re bringing those folks in?” she said.

Lawmakers have also considered implementing new programs aimed at bringing in young tech talent to fill IT vacancies. In June, Hurd proposed forming a “Cyber National Guard” through which students pursuing degrees in technology fields can receive federal scholarships in exchange for a stint in government IT.

He said he’s garnered support from lawmakers who have begun recognizing the need for agencies to bolster federal cybersecurity efforts after the OPM breach and other attacks.

Others think the pipeline should start even earlier with programs in high school and middle school. As director of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, Rodney Petersen helped organize the first cybersecurity awareness week to get K-12 students interested in cybersecurity.

Petersen said kids may not have much know much about cybersecurity because it’s a relatively new field. Exposing them to the career opportunities early on through events and online platforms like CyberSeek can play a huge role in building that pipeline of future IT specialists.

Smallwood thinks part of that process should include shining a light on the type of work government IT specialists are involved in. Federal tech employees are responsible for “really interesting missions,” which he believes the government can use to its advantage over the private sector if it were more forthcoming.

If I save you “a few extra dollars at the bank, that’s great,” he said, “but if I can save you from getting attacked by a terrorist, that’s really impactful work. Unfortunately the government just doesn’t talk about it.”

A note on methodology: Nextgov calculated the trend in the age gap using linear regression. The analysis only included employees ages 20 and over who specified their age. Click here to download the complete data and regression results.