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Recruiting and retaining young IT leaders: federal agencies use a wide range of innovative mechanisms to attract young IT professionals to government service and to sustain their interest over time.

The Federal Computer Week Government CIO Summit took place November 6-8 in Tucson, Arizona. During this event, which I attended, federal, state, and local information technology (IT) leaders met with private industry experts to discuss key issues such as leadership, contracting, IT security, and government outsourcing. On the last day, I participated in a panel session, "Meet the Next Generation IT Leaders," with a number of my esteemed colleagues, Lisa Schlosser, Chief Information Officer (CIO), Department of Housing and Urban Development; Jeremy Hiers and Lauren Shear, Army Knowledge Program; and Scott Campbell, IT Specialist, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency.

During this session, we discussed the next generation of the government IT workforce, including generational differences, mentoring, and work experiences. Two issues focused the debate: recruitment and retainment. Attendees were interested in knowing (1) why the young IT leaders came to work for the government (recruitment) and (2) why they have stayed with the government and not moved to the private side (retainment). Not just IT issues, these topics come up at nearly every event in which the Young Government Leaders organization participates. Therefore, I discuss some mechanisms that can be used to recruit and retain young government leaders as well as those the IT world is using for recruitment and retainment.

Recruitment

The troubles the government has in recruiting young people have been documented. In her article, "Attracting Graduates to Government," Addie Spahr mentions a number of the barriers to recruitment, including the poor perception of federal work and cumbersome federal application process.

But there are successes, too. Rotation programs to recruit people right out of graduate programs have been a success story. Created in 1977, the Presidential Management Fellows Program received over 3,000 applications in 2005 for a little over 500 jobs in the federal government. Those admitted to the program rotate among agencies for two years with accelerated promotion potential. Other agency programs--the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Emerging Leaders Program and U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Professional Development Program--feature two-year rotations for recent graduates with master's or doctorate degrees.

Although these programs have been successful, many of the applicants come from public policy, public health, and public administration programs where they already have an interest in working for the government. The federal government lacks a sound mechanism for recruiting the best candidates from undergraduate schools who are not thinking of applying to the government. This could be a two-year program, much like the presidential program, starting with rotations throughout the federal government and accelerated promotion potential. Packaged with student loan remission, this program would be highly coveted and an excellent opportunity for recent undergraduates to explore different areas in the federal government.

Teach For America

A potential benchmark for government resides in the nonprofit sector. Teach For America is the national corps of outstanding recent college graduates of all academic majors who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools in exchange for teacher salaries and up to $9,450 in loan forgiveness. In its fifteenth year, Teach For America received 17,350 applications for 3,600 slots, including 12 percent of Yale's graduates, 11 percent of Dartmouth's, and 8 percent of Harvard's and Princeton's. The success of Teach For America, as well as that of other groups like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, shows that college students want to work in programs that are clearly organized, easy to apply for, and serve a common good.

We don't yet have a government-wide undergraduate program for IT, but we do have specific programs for undergraduates.

Army Knowledge Leaders Program

The Army Knowledge Leaders Program (AKLeaders) is a two-year program, which includes four cycles of leadership training and developmental assignments at different Army locations. AKLeaders are a prestigious group, consisting of a national pool of high-achievement university graduates with grade point averages of 3.45 or higher. The first class graduated in 2003, and this year's graduating class consisted of six students. Under the guidance of the Army Chief Information Office/G-6, the program is advancing the way Army develops IT management professionals by cultivating leadership ability, business sense, management skills, and peer relationships, as well as the necessary IT skills.

As one recent graduate said, "I never thought about working for the government; however, once I heard about the AKLeaders Program, I thought it was perfect. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do after college and this allowed me to travel and get a range of experiences at different levels in different sectors." This program exemplifies what is needed to entice undergraduates to come to work in the federal service. It provides a number of exciting opportunities, such as travel, rotation to new assignments, and promotion, while at the same time developing the knowledge and skills the Army needs in the future.

Federal Cyber Service: Scholarship for Service

The Federal Cyber Service: Scholarship for Service is a unique program designed to increase and strengthen the cadre of federal information assurance professionals who protect the government's critical information infrastructure. Available at approved universities, it provides students with scholarships that fully fund the costs they pay for books, tuition, and room and board for up to two years. Participants also receive stipends of up to $8,000 for undergraduate and $12,000 for graduate students. In exchange, the recipient must have an internship for ten weeks during the summer and work for the federal government for a period equivalent to the length of the scholarship or one year, whichever is longer.

The Federal Cyber Service is not the only program that provides scholarships for school in exchange for some form of work commitment to the federal government. Others include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Scholars and Fellows Program and the National Security Education Program Boren Fellowship. Not only do these scholarship programs help develop individual relationships with future leaders, they also provide greater awareness of federal opportunities through word of mouth among associates of the recipients and develop direct ties to universities and their career centers.

Retainment

The issue of retainment in the civil service is evolving as we enter the twenty-first century and spans several levels: division, department, and governmentwide. A person may switch federal departments, which would upset the department's concept of retainment but still fall with the federal government as a whole. In addition, as retirement systems change and the distance between private industry and the government shrinks, people will more often switch between sectors. Private companies have already begun to rethink the issue of retainment by forming alumni groups for employees who leave, using these resources as potential business contacts and another source of future employees.

Many focus on pay and pay for performance as key issues for retainment, but they may not be the most important. According to one survey, at all levels except executives, federal employees earn an average of 1.26 percent more than contractor employees. The federal sector is well positioned to recruit, especially considering the benefits the federal government has to offer, such as flexible scheduling, good health insurance, and strong retirement. One major issue for retainment is the issue of opportunity and challenge. As shown by the Partnership for Public Service's Best Places to Work, many of the agencies (such as the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) rated the highest in employee satisfaction are the ones known for the most challenging work. Young people, especially those who want to be leaders, are looking for opportunity and variety and like rotations, challenges, and learning new things. Many are also interested in learning about the private side and the opportunities available. As described in Spahr's article, the lines between the public and private sector are blurring, and they need to work as a team, not as adversaries. Two of the most interesting developments in helping eliminate this divide and also challenge and retain workers are in information technology.

IT Exchange Program

First, the IT Exchange Program (ITEP) is a newly created professional development opportunity provided for in the E-Government Act of 2002. This program allows exceptional performers from the federal and private IT sectors to participate in a detail for three or more months in the other sector. The purpose is to develop, supplement, and modernize IT skills while improving overall competencies in the federal IT workforce. The Office of Personnel Management is helping to facilitate by signing up federal agencies, private companies, and individual participants. In addition, other details may be set up directly between the individual, company, and federal agency using the ITEP regulations. This program should benefit all as it allows individuals an opportunity to learn how to work in a different sector and to bring back some of the institutional know ledge. This opportunity should be especially enticing for the young employee in the private or public sector who is eager to learn more about the other.

ACT/IAC Voyagers Program

Another recently created opportunity for young leaders in the private and public sectors is the ACT/IAC Voyagers Program. The Voyagers Program derives from the American Council for Technology's (ACT's) Industry Advisory Council (IAC), created in 1989 to bring industry and government executives together to exchange information, support professional development, improve communications, and build partnerships and trust. The ACT/IAC Voyagers Program is an expansion of the original IAC. Begun in April 2005, it is a cooperative program featuring monthly activities for mid-level employees in the IT industry and federal government. Each Voyager participant is paired with another Voyager participant from the other sector, provided mentors from both private and public sectors, and participates in both structured group activities and self-study.

The first class graduated in December 2005. One graduate said, "The Voyagers Program was excellent as it provided good networking experience and it helped break down the barriers between private industry and the federal government. Each individual had unique work experiences in private and public industry and it was interesting to see how other business and government programs function." In addition, this person commented that he learned a lot through his peers and mentors because they were able to share experiences about successes and past mistakes.

Conclusion

The federal government continues to work to improve its recruitment and retainment mechanisms. Changes are needed to ensure that it can develop the leaders needed in the next generation as the baby boomers retire. A number of steps have been taken in the federal IT sector that can be used as models of inspiration. Young Government Leaders remains committed to helping improve recruitment and retainment by providing a voice for the young employees, who are closest to the issues at hand.

Links

The following are links to the programs described:

* ACT/IACVoyagers Program--www.actgov.com/VoyagersProgram

* Army Knowledge Leaders Program--www.akleaders.com

* Best Places to Work--www.bestplacestowork.org

* Federal Computer Week CIO Summit--www.fcw.com/events/cio

* Federal Cyber Service--www.sfs.opm.gov

* GAO's Professional Development Program--www.gao.gov/jobs/pdp.pdf

* HHS Emerging Leaders Program--www.hhs.gov/careers/elp.html

* IT Exchange Program--www.usajobs.gov/itep.asp

* Presidential Management Fellows Program--www.pmf.opm.gov

* Teach For America--www.teachforamerica.org.

References

Barr, Stephen. "Questionnaire Can Shut Out Entry-Level Job Applicants." The Washington Post. December 18, 2005.

Hardy, Michael. "Some fed contractors salaries rise, most fall." Federal Computer Week. September 8, 2005.

Lewin, Tamar. "Options Open, Top Graduates Line Up to Teach to the Poor." New York Times. October 2, 2005.

U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Presidential Management Fellows Program. 2005.

Spahr, Adrienne. "Attracting Graduates to Government." The Public Manager, Vol. 34, No. 4,Winter 2005-06.

Steve Ressler is vice president and Webmaster for Young Government Leaders. He can be reached at sressler@gmail.com. Be sure to check out the YGL Web site at www.youngovernmentleaders.org.
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Title Annotation:Federal Computer Week Government CIO Summit
Author:Ressler, Steve
Publication:The Public Manager
Geographic Code:1U8AZ
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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