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Laid-Off Tech Workers Find New Homes in Government Offices

Hart is one of five new management staffers to join the county's technology unit in the past several months as part of a three-year effort by Jack Belcher, Arlington's chief information officer, to move more county functions to the Web. Other new arrivals have come from MCI WorldCom and even from the ranks of the federal government.

Belcher says there are unexpected benefits to government work, far beyond the stability and other upsides that traditionally come with public-sector employment.

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"If you work for a contractor and you're a good Visual Basic programmer, you stay in Visual Basic," he says. "In government, you get your ticket punched in a lot of different technologies."

Belcher says he's been hearing more often from laid-off high-tech workers. He's pitching the notion that government work is no "haven, but a challenge." He realizes that people interested in technology are highly mobile in the course of their careers and "they may not stay for more than two or three years."

What does turn him off are holier-than-thou attitudes worn by some dot-com refugees. For instance, Belcher says, one management candidate stood up during his interview and presented a long-winded series of PowerPoint slides -- without regard to the questions of Belcher and the rest of the hiring committee.

Nonetheless, Belcher says that local government offices could make a good landing spot for some technology workers, especially since more jurisdictions are starting to reach out to their constituents electronically.

"There are almost 89,000 households in Arlington," says Belcher. "A huge majority are households with young adults in them who don't work 8 to 5 and need access" to community resources, tax and real estate information, maps, and libraries.

Folks seeking more information about tech jobs in local government can visit Public Technology Inc. (www.pti.org), a Washington-based nonprofit for cities and counties interested in technology, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (www.mwcog.org).

Starting Up a Network

Even in times of fiscal distress, one thing the tech community has never lacked is networking events.

Now hiring experts can add another entry to their electronic calendars.

A loose-knit group of companies funded by Maryland venture capitalist Steve Walker is gathering every month to talk about how to win recruits and boost morale in uncertain times. The meetings, which take place the second Tuesday of every month, are attracting not just firms in the Walker portfolio but also other start-ups in the Washington region.

"It's really taken on a life of its own," says Stacey Jarvie, who handles personnel issues for Walker & Associates.

What began as an informal question-and-answer session in late December now attracts staffers from 62 different companies in the region. The group has blossomed so quickly that it lacks a name. They're using "HR Network" (hrnetwork@stevewalker.com) as a fill-in. But Jarvie and other organizers hope to remedy that soon by putting the question to their growing membership.

Besides dispensing advice about salaries and job counseling services, the human resources experts sometimes share résumés of promising candidates. They're also in the once unheard-of position of trying to make dot-coms attractive again.

"Used to be it was easier to hire in a dot-com," Jarvie says. "Now it's harder. People have sort of seen the tide turn."

Send tips, gripes and your impressions on punching the virtual time clock to Carrie Johnson at johnsonca@washpost.com.


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