The government needs to get serious about recruiting tech talent. Here’s how.

November 12, 2013

The ongoing HealthCare.gov fiasco is a symptom of a deeper problem: Our government desperately needs more and better software developers and engineers. The shortage of top technical talent in government is keeping our country on a path of continued technology mediocrity at an astronomical price for U.S. taxpayers. The sputtering health-care Web site alone has cost $196 million, and billions more have been wasted on other projects over the years.

The Obama administration has tried to deal with the health-care Web site's problems with a "tech surge," temporarily importing smart engineers from the private sector to conduct digital triage. But if we want to avoid this kind of crisis in the future, we need a system to bring technologists into public service long before a technology crisis strikes. We could do that with the IT equivalent of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program in which government helps young people with the cost of top-tier technical training in return for several years of public service.

In today’s economy, an engineering student’s personal calculus rarely values a government job over one in the private sector. The former is perceived as bureaucratic, lumbering and change-averse. The latter is a world that’s innovative, agile, always progressing.

A student completing a degree in computer science is most likely aiming for a job at Google, Facebook or some hipster start-up in the Bay Area. And, if that doesn't work out, the alternatives are far and wide. Booz Allen, Boeing or Lockheed Martin are on the lookout for top talent. Skilled developers can work for consumer-products companies like Nike, Coke or General Electric. The financial industry is also a draw — J.P. Morgan, Bank of America and NASDAQ, to name a few, are in need of the best and the brightest. In other words, the job prospects for engineers and developers are virtually limitless.

Tom Cochran (Courtesy Tom Cochran)
Tom Cochran (Courtesy Tom Cochran)

The demand for technology talent is far outstripping the supply, leading companies like Facebook to offer salaries up to $150,000, plus $120,000 in stock, to entry-level developers. This may seem ridiculous, but it’s what the market will bear for developers.

The public sector cannot compete for top-tier talent using the conventional government pay scale. The salary for an entry-level GS-7 position in the Washington metro area is $42,209. The Facebook salary mentioned above is equivalent to a top-tier GS-15 — that is, someone with 20 or more years of experience.

Meanwhile, education costs are skyrocketing. The average four-year public university costs more than $60,000, and a higher-end private university can go as high as $200,000. Almost two-thirds of students graduate with education debt, with the average amount being nearly $30,000 for private universities.

With the compensation imbalance between the private and public sector, our government will never be able to recruit the number of developers needed to support a 21st century digital government based on salaries alone. A more creative approach is needed.

Three years ago, the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point plan to reform government IT recommended addressing weaknesses within the existing technology career track and building a pipeline of excellent technology talent. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program is an excellent first step at bringing more agile digital methodologies into government. But a team of fellows parachuting temporarily into government agencies will not fix our problem. We need a permanent, sustained influx of developers into the government. Let’s sell the noble aspects of public service, while also making it a logically attractive career choice.

Take the military, for example. When a young man or woman enters the United States Military, Naval, Air Force or Coast Guard academy, he or she does so with full knowledge that there is a requirement to serve five years on active duty and three years in the reserve. In exchange for this commitment, they will receive a tuition-free, world-class education. Similarly, the ROTC provides university scholarships at colleges with an equivalent service commitment. Why can't the federal government apply this same model to software developers and engineers?

A college education in return for a guaranteed job sounds like a terrific deal for a graduate (and his or her parents). The cost of university tuition grows at four times the rate of the consumer price index, pushing it further out of reach for middle-class families.

Let’s acknowledge that much of our government’s ability to provide quality public service rests on the shoulders of technology talent. Let’s demonstrate an employee value proposition equal to, or greater than, what entices developers to work in Silicon Valley. Our investment in educating the next generation of civil servants will pay dividends that are orders of magnitude greater than the cost outlay.

Tom Cochran is chief technology officer at Atlantic Media, publisher of the Atlantic, Quartz, National Journal and Government Executive. Prior to that, he was at the White House as director of New Media Technologies. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Brian Fung · November 12, 2013