The Government Narrowed Its Tech Workforce Age Gap for the First Time in a Decade

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But agencies efforts to recruit young talent still have a long way to go.

The government is still struggling to bring young technologists into the federal workforce, but according to the latest data, agencies are starting to close the age gap in their tech shops ever so slightly.

A Nextgov analysis found the ratio of IT employees ages 60 and over to those in their twenties dropped slightly over the past year. It’s the first time that figure decreased since 2010.

According to data from the Office of Personnel Management, the government employed roughly 4.4 IT specialists ages 60 and above for every person under the age of 30 in September 2018, down from 4.5 in September 2017. While that drop may seem insignificant, it shows the government is slowly starting to build a pool of talented tech employees to take over when their older colleagues retire.

The age-gap ratio grew steadily between 2010 and 2017, and had the trend continued, IT employees over 60 would’ve outnumbered their 20-something counterparts more than 10-to-1 by 2024. But last year marked the first time in nearly a decade that agency tech shops reversed course.

The number of federal tech workers in their twenties, which has dropped every year since 2010, increased by 174 people between 2017 and 2018. The growth was driven at least partly by young technologists sticking around longer in their government jobs: only 251 IT specialists under 30 left civil service last year compared to 427 in 2017.

Though age gap isn’t a problem in and of itself—young entry-level workers wouldn’t directly take over for a retiring senior official—it’s a symptom of an unbalanced talent pipeline.

“If we experience a significant amount of retirements ... and we don’t have that next generation that’s ready to fill those critical missions, then we’re going to have a problem,” Margot Conrad, director of federal workforce programs at the Partnership for Public Service, told Nextgov in an interview last year.

The government has recently started devoting more resources to bringing in that next generation of tech talent. The Trump administration’s reorganization plan directs the Homeland Security Department to create a system for hiring cyber specialists faster and at higher salaries, and officials have started exploring different methods for incentivizing early-career technologists to join civil service.

While the latest stats are promising, they should be taken with a grain of salt. The improvements were still pretty marginal, and there are numerous factors that will determine if 2018 was an inflection or a fluke.

For instance, OPM has only released data through September 2018, so it doesn’t cover the potential fallout from recent 35-day government shutdown. Lawmakers and government tech experts predicted the shutdown would make it harder for agencies to recruit and retain technologists, especially people early in their careers.

“It's difficult to anticipate a career at a place that you see going through these kinds of machinations,” Dave Mihelcic, former chief technology officer at the Defense Information Systems Agency, told Nextgov in January. “There just will be a more negative perception of the stability and security and viability of a career in the federal government coming out of this shutdown.”