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“If we don’t figure out how to do this, we’re really going to have systems we can’t support, and we’re going to have public failures.”
Roughly a quarter of Maine’s information technology staff will be eligible for retirement over the next two years, according to the state’s chief information officer, Jim Smith.
Offsetting these impending staff departures promises to be a challenge. During an online seminar on Wednesday, Smith noted that some of the employees reaching the end of their careers have up to 30 or 35 years of experience, and “you can’t replace that overnight.”
Similar situations are unfolding in states around the country as large numbers of government IT workers approach retirement age. The phenomenon is sometimes called the “silver tsunami.”
Further complicating matters is competition for qualified job candidates from private companies, which can frequently offer more competitive salary packages than government agencies.
There can also be difficulties luring millennials—known to prefer flexible workplaces—into the sometimes rigid world of public sector employment. These younger workers also tend to jump between jobs more often than members of previous generations, which raises additional questions about how IT organizations can move more quickly to recruit and train employees.
“Transformational,” is how Smith described the changes that will result from the mounting wave of soon-to-be IT retirees in Maine. “It’s not going to be the same organization, it won’t be the same people,” he said. “If we don’t figure out how to do this, we’re really going to have systems we can’t support, and we’re going to have public failures and things like that."
During the seminar, Smith, along with Tennessee’s chief information officer, Mark Bengel, spoke about some of the ways they are working to attract and retain new employees. The online event was held by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.
According to Bengel, about 31 percent of the IT staff he oversees will be eligible for retirement by year’s end. “I just outsourced all my mainframe services,” he said. One of the main reasons for this was “the expectation that we may not be able to easily find those skills in the future.”
Outsourcing is one way to make up for staff shortages. But there are also a number of other tactics Maine and Tennessee are using to fill out their IT ranks.
Smith and Bengel highlighted flexible work schedules, internship and mentorship programs, and transitioning temporary workers into full-time positions as methods they’d used. Both chief information officers also emphasized that government IT can provide a chance for young staff members to take on “meaningful” assignments and to use unique technology.
“We have, actually, some real advantages in attracting workers,” Bengel said. “One of them is we have some really big toys.”
Smith echoed that view. “We’re going to give them opportunities they’re not going to have anywhere else,” he said. “You have no idea the breadth of what we cover, from prisons, to health and human services, to state police, to technology on snowplows.”
But Bengel believes it’s something more than just the technology that keeps some of Tennessee’s IT staff sticking around. “The ability to make a difference is really attractive for many people,” he said.
“I have workers that, I honestly, I don’t know how I keep them, I mean, they are so talented,” Bengel added. “But they [have] really bought into their mission, they love what they do.”
In addition to what employees are doing, where they are doing it can also make a difference in how they view their jobs.
“Today, I have somewhere between 20, 30 percent of my staff that are working from home,” Bengel said. “Being a technology organization, actually, there’s a lot of positions that really fit that very well.” Over an approximately two-year period, he said that his IT staff had not lost any members who are enrolled in a program that allows them to work from home.
This type of flexibility can be especially important for millennial employees.
“You’re managing millennials more to tasks than to hours,” Bengel said. “Whether they get it done between eight and five, or they get it done between four and eleven shouldn’t matter as long as they get it done.”
He added: “This is something that’s new for government, because we tend to traditionally have always managed to butts in seats, and I think we really need to manage more to accomplishment.”
In Maine, the state has developed an IT intern program that has proven to be an effective pipeline for getting younger employees into state government. Smith said that about 70 percent of the internship program participants have transitioned to full time jobs. “We’re treating it like we’re hiring employees, and we’ve had great success with that,” he said.
Once younger staff members are onboard, Smith attempts to include them on project teams. If there’s a team taking shape, he said he tries to, “sprinkle it with some younger people, both to give them an opportunity, and to let us hear some of the things they have to say.”
Smith also pointed out that it’s currently taking between three and five months to fill senior IT positions.
There are currently about 500 people in Maine’s IT workforce, and Smith said that with roughly 26 percent nearing retirement, “you say, boy, if it’s going to take me even three months to fill those positions, you just do the math and say: ‘we probably can’t get there.’”
Bengel said that Tennessee has been focusing on hiring people for lower level IT positions and then investing heavily in training and career development.
“Career development does make a difference,” he said. “If you can train and promote people quickly, and keep them moving up a chain, you’ll hang on to them much, much longer.”
The clock is certainly ticking as IT departments search for staffing solutions. Smith mentioned that just prior to Wednesday’s seminar, he’d been at a retirement party.
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