Federal CIOs struggle to recruit and retain top IT talent

Talent compass to recruit and hire the right skills.
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Government officials stress the need for CIOs to step up IT recruiting and training efforts. They also stress the need to engage more actively with younger workers as they groom the next generation of agency leaders.

Federal CIOs are working through a number of long-term IT initiatives in areas like cloud computing, mobility and open data, but often struggle to recruit and retain top talent.

"The pace of change is so significant," Richard Spires, the former CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, said during a recent panel discussion hosted by Federal News Radio.

"That is a major challenge for a CIO and his or her management team -- how do you keep your workforce fully skilled to be able to take advantage of those new technologies," says Spires, who now serves as CEO of the IT training firm Learning Tree International.

The concerns about agencies fielding a capable IT staff are compounded by the graying of the federal workforce and the challenges in recruiting younger workers who could land more lucrative positions in the private sector.

Federal CIOs urged to step up IT recruiting, training efforts

It's an issue that U.S. CIO Tony Scott has made a high priority at the CIO Council, the consortium of federal government tech chiefs.

"Tony came in [and] one of the things that he's challenging all of us [with] is where are you at with succession planning. How are you preparing the younger employees to assume these roles when you are gone?" says Richard McKinney, CIO of the Department of Transportation (DoT). "And there's a number of initiatives that we're starting where we're going to be identifying some employees and we're going to be giving them some training along those lines, as part of -- again -- that emphasis on succession planning. A lot of emphasis around the council right now on workforce development."

[ Related: Department of Transportation CIO Leading a Turnaround Mission ]

McKinney says that the DoT is in the process of hiring a chief learning officer, a role that figures to help the department improve its efforts in hiring, training and retaining top talent.

Mike Casey holds that position at the General Services Administration, where he has been working to bring the government more in line with the private sector, studying the hiring practices of firms like Google and Zappos and accelerating the onboarding process at his agency, which now includes a four-hour module focused on helping new employees envision how they would like to progress in their government careers.

Central to all of those efforts for government CIOs, Casey explains, is reinforcing the mission of the agency, stressing the fundamental civic goal of improving citizen services.

"I think it begins with making sure our employees understand again why we're doing this," Casey says.

McKinney acknowledges that government leaders could do a better job of nurturing young employees -- not coddling them, but engaging more directly with them to help design a career path and match them with challenges and opportunities for development.

"IT's a team sport, and I think you have to show an interest," McKinney says.

"It goes a long way because they respond to that," he adds. "Showing that kind of interest in an employee is good for you, good for them, good for the whole organization."

Those efforts must go beyond just IT. Government insiders stress the importance of developing what are sometimes referred to as "soft skills" -- the interpersonal and leadership qualities that are seen as increasingly critical as technology grows more intertwined with the mission of the enterprise.

[ Related: How to Identify Soft Skills in IT Job Candidates ]

"Are they employees or are they IT specialists? And I don't know that we have to answer that question. We want to do both," Casey says. "At some point, no matter how good you are as an IT specialist, the odds are you're going to end up supervising and managing and leading IT specialists. We can't wait and then try and start teaching folks those skills, as well. So we need that holistic approach right from the get-go."

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