Fed studies target IT worker compensation

WASHINGTON — Federal officials are taking a hard look — in two separate studies — at increasing the pay rates for information technology employees in order to stay competitive with the private sector.

The need is especially acute as federal worker retirements mushroom during the next few years.

The federal Chief Information Officers Council is conducting a study with the National Academy of Public Administration to determine whether pay scales should be permanently increased for federal IT workers.

"If we don't do something soon, we're going to be in more (of a) crisis than we are in now," said Gloria Parker, CIO at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A separate study by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is examining whether there should be a temporary increase in federal IT worker salaries. The government has already increased salaries of highly skilled occupations, such as medical officers, to compete with the private sector.

Federal agencies are reporting numerous unfilled IT positions, a problem not unique to the public sector. Earlier this month, the Information Technology Association of America estimated that U.S. companies will seek to hire some 1.6 million IT workers this year but will be able to fill only half of those positions (see story).

But the federal government faces unique problems. Starting wages, which run from around $23,000 to $35,000, are considered well behind salaries paid to entry-level IT professionals in the private sector. Government agencies can't offer stock options. Federal agencies can offer retention bonuses, but they often don't have the money to do so.

The government does a better job at keeping middle-tier workers, those with enough experience to get salaries ranging from $50,000 to $90,000 or more.

The most pressing problem, however, has to do with age. Federal workers are, on average, 45 to 47 years old. It's an older workforce, and as many as half of the roughly 80,000 current federal IT workers will be eligible for retirement by 2006.

The Personnel Management Office study could lead to salary scale increases of up to 30%, said Henry Romero, an associate director. The study should be completed by the end of the year, he said.

But federal agencies are trying to do more than increase salaries. There is legislation pending in Congress that would pay the cost of academic degrees for federal employees, along with licenses and certificates. IT managers are also being more flexible in allowing telecommuting and encouraging training opportunities.

Private-sector employers are finding that base pay is becoming less important to IT workers, said Rick Distasio, a vice president at Compaq Federal LLC. The base salary has actually become a smaller number in an employee's total compensation, which includes a combination of annual stock and cash-based incentives, he said.

Also important to IT workers is ensuring that they understand the importance of their role in the organization, said Distasio. "Do they see how they fit and what role they play?" he said.


Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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