Technology boom drains ranks of government workers

Private sector offers better pay, conditions

November 26, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- When Lee Futterfield ended a 20-year Air Force career to launch a start-up computer company, he took eight young information technology specialists with him.

By the time he sold the company last year for $124 million, roughly half of his 72 staffers had been hired directly from the military or other federal agencies. And now, as he builds his second start-up, San Antonio-based SecureLogix Corp., he is luring dozens more computer personnel away from the government.

Futterfield is just one of thousands of private-sector employers who are contributing to an increasingly troublesome personnel crisis for federal officials. While the government has been troubled by a shortage of computer professionals for years, the brain drain has been exacerbated by the continuing high-tech boom and, more recently, the Internet explosion and Y2K bug.

"Retention has always been a problem, but nowadays it's probably the worst it's ever been," said Futterfield, 48. "We're one of the companies hiring them away as fast as we can."

Alarmed by the continuing loss of personnel, the chief information officers of various federal agencies are desperately seeking ways to attract technological talent. President Clinton is pressing Congress to create an ROTC-like program for computer specialists to cover college costs in exchange for a four-year commitment to join the government "cyber corps."

Although there is no official tally of computer professionals in the civilian branches of the federal government, the Air Force, the most technology-intensive of the military services, has more than 60,000 computer professionals, including enlisted personnel, officers and civilians.

In some branches of the government, including the Air Force, top officials fear the shortfall will soon hurt operations. And intelligence officials are concerned that unless the problem is addressed, the security of the government's computer networks may be compromised.

"There is a shortage of talent, and the talent available went to Y2K," complained Gloria Parker, chief information officer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and co-chairwoman of the work force committee of the federal Chief Information Officers Council.

The White House has commissioned a study to explore the scope of the shortfall, but the results will not be ready until next year. In the meantime, officials say, it appears the government needs a quarter to a third more technology personnel than it currently has.

"It's more than just anecdotal; I think that we're in a crisis," said George Milaski, the Department of Transportation's chief information officer.

Officials say the problem is particularly acute in the military, where salaries are lower and working conditions are often more difficult.

Air Force Gen. William J. Donahue said the service has avoided serious problems so far by calling on computer staffers to work longer hours and assigning junior personnel to higher-level tasks.

"You've got some very junior people out there on the front lines," said Donahue, who manages the Air Force's information technology professionals. "I don't know how long [we] can continue to endure this kind of stress before it starts taking a huge toll. It's a very serious problem."

Aboard the San Diego-based aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, the problem of retaining computer technicians has reached the point that Pacific Fleet commanders are considering a request to hire civilian technology workers for six-month deployments on the Stennis and other ships.

"Many of these kids are making, what, $20,000 a year?" Cmdr. Bruce Acton, one of the Stennis' top computer officers, said in an interview as the carrier conducted a recent training cruise. "When it comes time for re-enlistment, I can offer them $22,000 and another four years at sea away from their families. Or they can go into the private sector and make $45,000 to $50,000. It's not a hard choice for them."

The federal government is not alone. In California, state agencies have a "significant problem" in recruiting and retaining people with up-to-date computer skills, said Peter Strom, chief of policy and operations for the California Department of Personnel Administration.

The state is now instituting salary increases of 10 percent to 20 percent above base pay for people with current skills, plus an additional 5 percent for workers in the San Francisco Bay area because of the lure of Silicon Valley start-ups.

The flight of computer personnel to the private sector has been fueled in part by the Y2K remediation effort, which involves reprogramming computers so they will not mistake the year 2000 for 1900. Experts say a huge number of government computer specialists have taken lucrative jobs making computers Y2K-compliant.

Unable to fill the ranks of its own computer corps, the government increasingly is turning to private contractors to handle its information technology needs.

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