Federal IT hiring slips with political deadlock

Data shows a downward trend in IT hiring after a jump in the size of the government's IT workforce

IT hiring by the federal government is trending downward, with fewer jobs posted each month this year than last year, according to a Computerworld analysis of employment data.

The government had been posting well over 200 IT jobs a month, but since the budget sequestration went into effect in March, the IT job postings have dropped to about 150 a month.

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Federal hiring could drop to zero if Congress reaches a budget impasse next week and shuts down the government.

The federal civilian IT workforce reached nearly 83,000 by the end of 2012, but IT head count has been gradually declining, and was at 82,400 in June, according to the last available numbers from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's FedScope data bank.

Funding for federal agencies has been uncertain because of sequestration, which imposed mandated across-the-board cuts, as well budgets that are based on continuing resolutions and not full-year plans.

As a result, "it becomes very difficult to project how much payroll money you will have in any one particular fiscal year," said Rick Holgate, speaking in his capacity as president of the American Council for Technology, which is affiliated with the Industry Advisory Council. Both groups work jointly to provide a forum for government and private sector exchanges. Holgate is also CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

People are getting more cautious about hiring, and the jobs that are likely to be filled first are those in front-line positions such as law enforcement rather than those in back-office areas, including human resources, finance and IT, Holgate said.

The federal IT job-listing data that Computerworld assembled was gathered by searching USAJobs.gov, the federal employment website, once per month for all listings coded as occupational series 2200, the Information Technology Group. This series covers occupations such as IT program manager, project manager, IT specialist, architecture, security, systems analyst, application software, operating systems, network services, system administration, customer support and other functions. It may not cover the entire universe of federal IT jobs.

The decline in postings for government jobs may be showing some of the effect resulting from "a de facto shifting of some of the workload to the private sector," Holgate said.

This chart shows the number of tech job listings per month at USAJobs.gov, the federal employment website. It is based on data collected by Computerworld by searching once per month for federal IT jobs under the 2200 series, the IT hiring group. The data was collected from June 2012 through August of this year.

In the last couple of years, Holgate said, "it's easier and less risky to bring on contractors than to commit to hiring government employees." Using private contractors allows agencies to ramp up on projects as needed, providing more flexibility. However, the downside is that "private sector people are more expensive on a per person basis than if they were federal employees," he said.

But the flexibility that comes with private contractors is limited. The authority to make management decisions or changes on a team is more direct if all the individuals on the team are employees, Holgate said. "That authority becomes a little less direct, obviously, when there is a contract relationship involved."

This chart shows the median minimum salary levels indicated for tech jobs on USAJobs.gov, the federal employment website.

In 2010, the federal government had 75,900 IT workers. The increase in the IT workforce from 2010, by nearly 8,000 IT workers, followed President Obama's push for more insourcing, or work done by federal employees instead of contractors, in government. Obama's first CIO, Vivek Kundra, was particularly critical of federal dependency on large IT contracts, and the hiring of contractors who end up "on the payroll indefinitely."

Ray Bjorklund, who heads market research firm BirchGrove Consulting, said the job growth between 2010 and 2012 "could have been an artifact of the initial wave of insourcing."

Bjorklund said he doesn't see a clear cause and effect in the data. The increase in the workforce happened at the same time that Kundra put emphasis on infrastructure consolidation and data center downsizing.

"Why would you need to add more people, if you intend to reduce the IT footprint?" he asked. Were the feds trying to bring in fresh talent, prior to the accelerated budget constraints, including sequester, that they face today?"

What is clear is that planning in federal IT is harder due to the budget issues.

Steve VanRoekel, the federal CIO, appearing recently before the White House science advisory panel, said that sequestration and the overall budget uncertainty make it "really tough for people to think about, how do I invest, how do I do investment that can drive benefit well into the future?"

For now, VanRoekel said he and other CIOS in government are discussing "things we can do smarter about consolidating resources," and shared services.

This chart shows the median maximum salary levels indicated for tech jobs on USAJobs.gov, the federal employment website.

This article, " Federal IT Hiring Declines With Political Deadlock," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her email address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter ( @sharon000), Facebook and Google+, or subscribe to her RSS feeds:articles | blogs.

See more by Sharon Machlis on Computerworld.com.

Read more about IT careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.

This story, "Federal IT hiring slips with political deadlock" was originally published by Computerworld.

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