Rapid Tech Change Requires Rebranding to Recruit Talent

A few months ago, I met the city of Austin’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) and we soon discovered that we had several mutual interests, especially related to young people, technology, and a rapidly evolving economy. Intrigued by our conversations, we recently convened a meeting with several leaders from the city’s Information Technology team (CITT) that included the Austin Independent School District, Austin Fire Department, Austin Public Library, financial services, and public utilities. We also invited education officers from the University of Texas, Austin Community College, as well as education policy analysts.

The purpose of the meeting was to explore how the rapid pace of social and technological change is transforming the CITT and its ability to build a more sustainable city. Prior to the convening, we conducted a small survey with the participants to assess how they define their information technology (IT) related challenges.  The results are revealing.

Keeping Pace with Technology

The rapid pace of change—social, demographic, technological—was a universal concern. Many from the CITT expressed concerns about privacy and security. In the era of data—big data, open source data, social data—how does the public sector balance the need to be more transparent through Open Government initiatives while also remaining attentive to data security issues? There was palpable angst about the predominance of mobile. A number of respondents noted the need to develop mobile applications, services, trend analysis, and solutions for a workforce that is no longer anchored to a desk. The survey results also reflected a need to align strategic decision making and service provisions with the fact that more and more people use mobile devices to manage, among other things, their movement, health, financial affairs, information needs, and recreation. Not surprisingly, flat budgets resonated widely as a major obstacle to improving the city’s information technology infrastructure.  In lean financial times, many cities around the world are being asked to do more with less.

There was, however, one challenge that emerged as especially salient: nearly all of the CITT members anticipate a talent shortage in the coming years. As one manager told us, “having employees who are more capable of a variety of tasks are needed so we can better support systems and have more dynamic development teams. We need to be able to bring in new talent and also keep existing talent growing.” Another described the looming challenge this way: “finding folks for high-end technical positions and adoption of new maturing disciplines is crucial.” Concerns about a tech talent shortage are certainly not unique to the public sector.

Is The Tech Talent Shortage Real?

Technology executives like Bill Gates have argued for years that the U.S. private sector is facing a talent shortage. While many question the degree to which a tech talent gap truly exists, it continues to matter if leaders in the private and public sectors believe the talent that they need is getting harder to find. These kinds of concerns partially explain the strong push by tech companies and organizations like Code for America to promote the introduction of coding in school curricula. They argue that the kinds of analytical and computational skills that accompany learning how to code will provide a foundation for developing the future skills, talent, and workforce that our knowledge-based economy will need. Even more important than building the next generation workforce is cultivating the next generation of innovators, that is, people who will be able to adroitly define problems and mobilize the resources—social, technical, financial, and creative—to solve them.

The Talent Conundrum

In our analysis of the survey, we identified an obvious conundrum: talent is in short supply and high-skill workers appear too expensive for the public sector. The public sector’s challenge in recruiting the next generation of technology talent is compounded by two factors: budgetary constraints and a general lack of public knowledge about the information technology opportunities available across the city’s IT system. It was clear from our meeting that many of the public sector technology managers believe that they are handicapped when it comes to competing for top talent. 

“We are not as sexy as Apple, Google, Facebook or any of the other technology companies and starts-ups in Austin,” one technology manager told me. In our survey, one response explained the challenge this way: “It is becoming more difficult to have competitive salaries. We are cannibalizing positions to try to keep pace.” As the demands of managing the provisioning of critical city services continues to evolve, there is a growing need to develop a new generation of tech talent. “We are increasingly challenged to hire the IT skills required to mature our capacity in Cyber, mobile, and User Provisioning,” one survey respondent claimed. “Current staff does not have the skills to mature our capabilities and current state salary standards impact our ability to attract, hire and retain IT talent.”

But, is it a mistake to read the dilemma that our cities face as a tech talent shortage? Importantly, our cities will need to attract top talent that can provide not only technical expertise but also innovation expertise in a world of social, economic, and demographic change. This is not simply about building better apps or more secure technology infrastructures. It is also about building a smarter vision about the future of our cities and the role that technology will play in building more equitable futures. In addition to designing platforms that deliver more efficient services, public sector IT operations must be the architects of social innovations that address the growing challenges in energy, health, education, and transportation.

Schools and The IT Pipeline

Schools, by virtue of their core mission—the cultivation of human capital—were clearly implicated in our consideration of the tech talent shortage and skills gap. The group mapped some of the ways in which schools can positively influence the talent pipeline and skills gap. Here are five of the items that were discussed.

1. Many of the education officials suggested that a key strategy involves growing the connections between schools and the public (and private) sector. Over the last two to three decades, schools have become a walled fortress. The intense focus to drive up test scores has, in effect, cut students off from the world and opportunities around them. Additionally, this wall blocks the ability of students to see how what they are learning in school can be applied to the complex world they live in. The chief problem with schools, as John Dewey smartly noted nearly a century ago, is isolation—the isolation of students and schooling from life itself.

2. Several educators explained that it is mission critical to make public sector career opportunities less abstract and more tangible, visible, and accessible. If students and their parents, teachers, and guidance counselors do not know that certain opportunities exist, they will never pursue them. Bringing IT professionals into the schools and exposing students to city’s rapidly evolving IT ecosystem are good places to start.

3. The group urged schools to play an active role in re-branding computer science, information technology, and coding. Several attendees noted that a different set of messages and educational experiences might appeal to a more diverse group of young people. We often bemoan the fact that so few Latino, black, and female youth pursue STEM careers and, yet, how we message the pathways to these careers is seldom interrogated. To what extent are the narratives about tech literacy and competency constructed through a male, white, and middle class lens? These issues are especially notable in light of the recent workforce statistics released by Google, Yahoo, and Facebook.

4. Expose students to IT skills and computational thinking across the curriculum, not just in technology or computer science courses. This suggests that schools must begin to better appreciate the broad applicability and nuances of digital literacy and information skills across the total body of courses and knowledge that students engage in school. 

5. Education officials also recognize the need to begin offering more creative classes. That is, classes that flip, expand, and redefine learning. The contingent of education leaders made a case for expanding the types of courses that they offer through internships and capstone courses. Capstone classes involve a partnership between students, schools, and potential partners like those attending our meeting. In this context, students get a chance for hands-on and experiential learning in a real-world context.  Moreover, their public and private sector partners benefit from opening their doors to schools and a new generation of talent. Ideas like these bring new perspective and possibilities to the principles of connected and networked learning.

What Millennials Really Want: Creative Opportunities

The real takeaway is that schools and public sector agencies will need to be more assertive and more creative if they are to generate real solutions to what they both agree is an urgent problem: developing the next generation of technology talent. When students think of technology related jobs, they are much more likely to think of the Big Tech brands like Google, Apple, and Facebook. But, the same kinds of expertise coveted by Big Tech—coding, software engineering, product development, design, mobile app development, and problem solving—are also needed in the public sector. City agencies will need to crowdsource, leverage social and mobile media platforms, and think creatively and flexibly to solve the many challenges our cities face. Many of the areas represented at our meeting—education, public library, energy, and transportation—are pursuing some truly innovative and tech-driven solutions that will likely appeal to the young and the digital.

It strikes me that public sector managers may not be giving millennials the credit that they deserve. I have met students in architecture, design, the information sciences, engineering, and communications whose career aspirations are just as likely to include making an impact as making money. The public sector must be more active in generating greater knowledge about the opportunities in technology, design, and innovation across their different disciplines. Providing millennials an opportunity for creative and impactful work experiences will certainly address some of the challenges in recruiting top talent.

When I spoke with the CIO of the City of Austin afterward, he explained that his interest in our joint initiative was not a gesture of pure goodwill. “This is partly out of selfish reasons,” he acknowledged, adding, “if we don’t address this problem now, by building the IT talent pool, our ability to lead our cities into the future will be seriously compromised.”

Banner image credit: European Commission