Public sector vs. private: Competition heats up for IT staff

Alarms are sounding from many quarters about looming shortages in IT staff. The public sector will be particularly hard hit. An attrition rate of about 50 per cent over the next 10 years is expected for senior government IT staff due to early retirement, says David Tighe, VP at OriginHR, a Toronto-based recruiting and retention services provider.

“The government went through several years of being unable to hire full-time staff due to cutbacks and other political reasons,” he explains. “The result is that many of the people who left were not necessarily replaced with full-time staff. ” But he says this situation started changing about three years ago.

“We’re seeing a significant uptick in full-time positions that were typically held by contractors or consultants in the past,” he says, adding that his main clients are provincial governments across Canada.

It’s not clear if this new trend is an acknowledgement that better talent is attracted with full-time positions, or if it’s simply a result of loosened budgetary purse strings. “It depends on who you talk to,” says Tighe. “But there’s a certain fiscal element to it, as there’s a better return on investment in some cases. Governments have some political latitude now to increase headcount, so they’re really looking at where it makes business sense to put in a full-time person.”

However, the level of hiring for contract staff hasn’t diminished either, says Kelly Graham, divisional director at Ottawa-based recruiter Robert Half Technology, which deals exclusively with government contract staffing. “There’s been a significant increase of about 30 per cent in demand for contractors recently, which is typically what happens this time of year as many government departments have projects that need to be finalized by the fiscal year-end in March,” she says.

Tighe says provincial governments are changing their approach, and doing progressive work in recognition that programs must be developed today to deal with future staffing shortages. “We’re seeing a lot of real modernizing of HR, especially in Ontario. They’re really defining the difference between tactical and strategic recruitment.”

New business units and programs are being launched to formulate long-term strategies for attracting the best and the brightest, and they’re also conducting more internal surveys to discern the level of engagement of existing staff. “They recognize there’s more to recruiting than just running ads and hiring bodies,” says Tighe.

Programs targeting new grads are also underway which emphasize the education and career development opportunities available in government, says Tighe. As a result, hiring of young people is also on the rise, but it will take time and effort before the new crop can step into management positions. “The deficiencies are in middle management – the lack of staff in mid-career is where the crisis is,” he says.

Some provinces are attracting talent by branding themselves around the unique aspects of their regions and launching aggressive campaigns to convey their messages, he says. Nova Scotia, for example, is promoting its scenic coastlines and affordable housing in its “Come Home” campaign targeting departed Maritimers.

Alberta has a similar campaign promoting the province as a vibrant, high-growth region. But the government plays a dual role, as its mandate is not just to attract new grads to government positions, but to attract new grads in general to the province, says Tighe. “The Alberta government is uniquely positioned, because it’s promoting tech careers within the province, but it also needs to compete for that talent for government jobs.”

At the other end of the HR pipeline, provinces are taking a two-pronged approach to deal with the exodus of retiring senior staff. While there are many programs encouraging retirees to stay on as consultant-mentors to transfer their knowledge and skills, governments are also looking to hire staff from the private sector, he says. “It’s one labour market, so everyone is competing against everyone else.”

For full-time positions, compensation is sometimes on par with the private sector, he says. “There are some cases where governments don’t compete on salary, but I’m not sure it’s as glaring a discrepancy as we’ve been led to believe. But they’re learning to play up other offerings.”

He points out there are advantages that appeal to candidates beyond the stability and benefits that typically come with government jobs. “Governments are working on some of the most interesting and relevant technology projects around. Web-based services delivery, environmental and healthcare projects are a good sell. IT projects with a perceived social value are very popular.”

On the contract staff front, compensation is by necessity on par with the private sector, says Graham. “Governments go through recruiting agencies for their contract staff, so it’s very competitive as they’re competing with the private sector for the same candidates.” Government opportunities are typically in the hands-on category of work: dot net and Java development, help desk staff and so on, she adds.

Despite the clamour about the shortage of IT staff, neither the public nor private sector is lowering the bar on job requirements, she says. Ideal candidates are still expected to have the entire spectrum of good business analysis and communications skills in addition to technical skills in multiple IT areas, she says.

“But government clients seem willing to hire candidates without interviewing them, so long as their resume and references check out.” But she adds government contracts typically run for shorter periods of time compared with the private sector, where contracts often run 12 months.

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Contact her at

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