Federal government agencies have a tech talent conundrum. Although the government offers technologists the chance to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues, it hasn’t yet figured out how to compete successfully with the private sector. To lure top tech talent, government needs a new playbook.
A big part of the problem is the highly competitive labor market. There are currently far more tech jobs open than there are traditional candidates to fill them, even with the coronavirus pandemic raging on. CompTIA, an IT trade group, puts the number of unfilled tech jobs at above 700,000. And according to 2019 data from LinkedIn, specialized tech skills such as analytical reasoning and cloud computing are the most in demand.
Salary also plays a role in the government’s tech talent shortage. Median salaries at big tech firms are attractive. Twitter employees make an average annual salary of $161,860; Facebook workers make around $240,000. A technologist working for the U.S. government makes about $110,000 each year. That’s a significant pay gap.
Finally, the government has structural barriers that make it difficult to compete with nimble private tech firms when it comes to hiring. For instance, the government takes more than 100 days on average to hire and is often restricted by a rigid set of hiring credentials. This causes the government to miss out on top talent, as well as great candidates who may not tick every box.
Agencies Need More Creative Recruitment Strategies
To compete with private firms, the federal government needs to deploy creative recruitment strategies that help sell candidates on the more subtle benefits and opportunities of working for the public sector.
Instead, the government largely relies upon traditional tactics: attending job fairs, posting job positions online and using recruiters to reach out to candidates. The result is that candidates easily overlook government jobs for more cushy, flashy Silicon Valley-style gigs, complete with state-of-the-art offices, free catered lunches and seemingly endless perks.
That said, the government does have some interesting short-term hiring strategies that have begun to transform its approach to tech recruitment.
The Presidential Innovation Fellows program, for example, offers high-level tech employees a short-term stint to work on a particular problem. It’s a win-win: The government gets help on a specific issue, and the technologists get a low-risk opportunity to get their feet wet in public sector work. Even better, it works: More than a third of PIFs end up sticking around for the long term.
A New Way Forward on Federal IT Recruitment
The U.S. government needs to fix its tech talent problem. Again, the solution hinges on creative thinking; the private sector will always win out when it comes to salary and perks, but the government has something valuable to offer candidates too. Here are three steps that will point the U.S. government in the right direction.
Recruit talent in unconventional ways. By limiting its recruitment activities to traditional pools of talent, the federal government is missing out on some great candidates. A huge segment of tech talent is self-taught or has gone through coding school. Find these folks and bring them into the fold.
Shift the message. Recruiting for tech talent should focus on selling the mission and the widespread impact of the work to be done, not on details such as salary or vacation days. Today’s young workforce yearns to make a difference, and many of those workers believe technology is the pathway to doing so. Play up how government work will let these workers do just that. PIFs who have decided to continue their careers with the government often say it’s the meaningful mission and the chance to be involved in public service that compels them to stick around.
Look for upskilling opportunities in the existing talent pool. Onboarding a new employee is a costly and lengthy process, so government agencies should consider taking a closer look at their existing employees and identifying what skills are needed to deepen their skill sets. LaunchCode, for example, works with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to train its internal development team on specialized skills in geospatial intelligence.
The federal government has a tough time recruiting tech talent, but it doesn’t have to remain that way. While the private sector’s salaries and perks will probably always be unbeatable, the government offers something completely different: a chance to change the world. Freshened recruitment tactics will help lure candidates who want to be part of something bigger.