Applicants rise to the bait

Luring IT professionals to Dover, Del., is like dropping a baited line in a well-stocked pond. The state of Delaware’s IT department in Dover is netting an average of 100 resumes per job, although a year ago 25 was a big catch.

CIO Thomas Jarrett has hired six senior executives since January, including a CTO, COO and director of major projects. He also has reeled in six out of eight senior team leaders to head up application delivery, data center and operations, and systems engineering projects. Fishing through resum’s from across the country that boast 30 years’ experience, Jarrett is on track for meeting a July 2003 legislative mandate for dismantling and rebuilding Delaware’s 175-person IT team.

Shifting the old operations to the new IT structure is like a game of checkers, said Jarrett, who is meeting the challenge put forth by a legislative task force to repair the department’s problems with credibility, efficiency and overall satisfaction. Previous IT staff needed to apply for available positions or could choose to pursue other civil service jobs outside the department. Through it all, the new senior team is managing the existing systems and systematic migration of IT functions within the restructured group.

The sluggish economy is helping the state pull in abundant, qualified applicants. “We have access to people we would not have had at the height of the dot-coms,” Jarrett said. “We’re getting people to show up at our doorstep and we believe they will actually stay. Two years back, IT people were writing their own ticket.”

Once considered a retirement career and previously known for slow technology adoption, substandard talent and below-market-rate pay, government jobs now look more attractive. State IT salaries are increasing at a time when overall compensation is flat or declining. Standard benefits such as fully paid health insurance, pension, savings bonds and tuition reimbursement are drawing IT pros concerned about the uncertain health of private companies.

Consider the numbers: Federal, state and local agencies snapped up 321,000 workers for various jobs between June 2001 and June 2002. That’s a reversal from the one-year period between June 2000 and June 2001, when the government workforce fell by 65,000, according to a report from executive recruiter Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. What’s more, trust in big business is down. A June Gallup poll shows only 54 per cent of survey respondents believe corporate executives are honest and ethical.

With IT candidates nibbling, the public sector is prepared to buy the best talent.

The state of Delaware’s IT personnel’s pay jumped between 5 per cent and 20 per cent under a redesigned compensation structure, and that extends salary ranges by US$20,000 to $50,000, an adequate breadth for staff to advance their skills and pay. “With clear career paths, people know they can move up and earn six figures,” Jarrett said.

In Arlington County, Virginia, meeting market-rate IT salaries is less of a challenge, said Vivek Kundra, who estimates that IT salary expectations have come down in the tightened economy. The IT director has filled seven out of nine open positions in the past 10 months. Even consultants doing projects for the county are hitting up Kundra for jobs.

“With financial scandals and stock portfolios being hit, government is looking like a safe place,” he said.

Job candidates are scrambling to snag jobs they might not otherwise consider. When Kundra mentioned an open position during a local television newscast, that spawned a 50M-byte load of e-mail, resum’s and attachments from more than 150 people in 24 hours.

Some applicants are attracted by innovative technology projects. In January, Kundra hired a video technology architect with 10 years’ experience in deploying IP videoconferencing and IP multicasting. The new design and integration skills have already paid off, and the county’s departments are pleased with a new voice, video and data network, Kundra said.

There are many opportunities within government areas such as Arlington County, home to the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport, where investments are being made to fight cyberterrorism. The county’s recent hire of a CTO and senior architect already has resulted in the deployment of a new Gigabit Ethernet LAN to link the county’s 42 offices. Moreover, protecting the government network requires deploying new technology such as host- and network-based intrusion-detection systems and honeypots, and maintaining 24-7 server monitoring and firewall log analysis.

“You can’t do that in the private sector when they’re laying people off and being cautious with spending,” Kundra said.

Phil Windley, CIO for the state of Utah, agrees there are more experienced applicants available today than in 2000 when he was often forced to hire a less-qualified person for a job because he couldn’t compete with corporate compensation. “With recent hires, salary is not an issue. What we are able to pay is just fine, but it may not be good enough in a couple of years if things pick up,” he said.