Sign In

Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The (gradually) Changing Face of State It Jobs

IT jobs in state organizations are not what they used to be. Over the past few years, state governments in the U.S. have embarked on a variety of changes to their human resource management (HRM) practices for IT positions (for example, salary increases and bonus programs, enhanced training programs, telecommuting, and alternative work schedules) [6]. The goal of these changes has been to improve the states' abilities to recruit and retain the talent needed to leverage IT in pursuit of the missions of state agencies and universities. Although states still find it difficult to compete with the private sector, these positive changes are making them an increasingly attractive employer for IT professionals.

While some state IT jobs have undergone major transformations, these changes have largely gone unnoticed except by those leading the efforts and the IT professionals holding the jobs. However, this is a sector worth paying attention to, as many of the problems faced by states—for example, limited financial resources, rigid compensation structures, and high levels of bureaucracy—are similar to the problems faced by other organizations. One purpose of this article is to bring the states' experiences to light, describing both the challenges faced and the HRM practices they are pursuing to become an employer of choice. Clearly, this is a work in progress and difficult challenges remain. The second aim of this article is to examine state IT jobs from the perspective of the professionals in those jobs. We describe the findings of a survey of over 400 IT professionals working in state agencies and universities in positions ranging from entry level to senior management. Visible in this profile are some of the current upsides and downsides of state IT jobs. The themes evident in this data are also relevant in terms of many other private-and public-sector organizations, as well as providing a portrayal of state public service for IT professionals who may be considering employment in this sector.

States face tough challenges in meeting their IT work-force requirements. First, the number of IT workers needed by states is growing due to an increasing reliance on information technologies to run programs and deliver services to citizens. (For profiles of nationally recognized state IT programs, see the National Association of State Chief Information Officers 2004 Recognition Awards, At the same time that demand is increasing, states are facing problems related to an aging work force. A 2002 report by the Council of State Governments estimated the loss of more than 30% of their work force by 2006 [2]. Exacerbating the situation is the paradox that during economic downturns, when state budgets are shrinking due to falling tax revenues, the demand for some state IT services (for example, processing of unemployment benefits) actually increases [7].

The competition for IT talent presents perhaps the most difficult challenge for states. The economic recession created a softening demand for IT workers in the private sector, providing some interim relief. However, even as the IT marketplace shows signs of a slight recovery [5], declining enrollments in IS and computer science programs are generating new concerns about future shortages of IT workers in the U.S. In addition, the E-Government Act and Bureau of Labor Statistics predictions that 16,000 new federal IT workers will be needed by the end of the decade [10] indicate that competition from the federal government for IT personnel is likely to intensify. Increased awareness of the importance of data sharing/analysis capabilities as a result of terrorist-related events of 9/11 may push this number even higher as initiatives to improve interagency information sharing are given high national priority [11].

The aggressive steps being taken to revamp the federal system for recruiting, retaining, compensating, and developing IT employees may also narrow or eliminate states' relative advantages as a public-sector employer (see Table 1) [10]. Lastly, while the issue of IT staffing for many U.S. firms has shifted to a competition for talent in a global labor market, attempts by states to outsource their IT work offshore have generated heated public policy debate and political backlash [4]. Clearly, the shifting IT work-force landscape will continue to present challenges for states and their ability to compete for IT talent.

Back to Top

State Responses to Recruiting and Retaining IT Professionals

While the need for IT workers and previous severe shortages placed stresses on all sectors, states felt these stresses more acutely than many private-sector firms, particularly those with greater financial resources and more flexible compensation structures. Studies conducted by the Council of State Governments and the Chief Information Officers Council, an organization of federal CIOs, identified major obstacles to the recruitment and retention of state IT workers [6, 10]. Top barriers to recruitment included low base salaries, lack of qualified candidates, a poor image of civil service, and limited advancement opportunities. Similar themes were echoed the obstacles to retention—inability to compete with the private sector, low base salaries, insufficient reward systems, and lack of advancement opportunities. One of the key insights provided by our study is the degree to which non-financial aspects of the job can affect job satisfaction and the decisions of state IT workers to stay or leave their organizations.

States have begun to respond to these challenges with changes to their compensation and personnel practices. Compensation-related strategies have included base pay increases; special salary rates/differential pay for IT workers; pay-for-performance increases; retention bonuses; bonus pay for skill acquisition; and participation in mission-critical projects. Kansas, for example, offered a program to employees with critical skills involving a three-year contract during which their status was changed to unclassified (not covered by civil service employment rules) in exchange for a salary increase (typically 10%—15%) and additional training to keep skills current [3]. States have also taken steps to improve opportunities for ongoing training and development for their IT workers, including support for higher education. Alternate work schedules, flex time, telecommuting, and the opportunity to work on higher-profile projects are also being offered. Lastly, some states have streamlined their hiring processes, for example, granting direct-hire authority to IT managers and instituted referral and signing bonuses to aid recruitment efforts. While many of these changes mirror HRM strategies adopted by private-sector companies, their implementation in the context of states' civil service systems represents a significant accomplishment.

Where these programs and practices have been in place long enough to measure results, they are showing success [10]. However, although states are making headway and in some areas have been ahead of the federal sector, they still lag behind the private sector in terms of compensation and work factors for IT jobs (as illustrated in Table 1). An important element in targeting future efforts is to understand what approaches are working and not working from the perspective of state IT workers themselves.

Back to Top

A View from the Trenches

A survey of IT professionals working in state agencies and universities in Louisiana was conducted in 2002 under the sponsorship of the Louisiana Council of Information Services Directors (CISD, This group of IT executives sought a deeper understanding of issues related to the retention of their IT work force and partnered with researchers from Louisiana State University who designed and conducted the study. Over 400 IT professionals working in 23 state agencies and universities completed the Web-based survey, sharing candid views of their jobs. This article examines findings from one part of that study.

As shown in the figure, the survey participants represented a wide range of technical and management positions, tenure in the organization, and years of IT work experience. Prior work experience also varied, with approximately half of the participants having IT work experience in an organization other than their current agency/university. About one-third of those participants who had worked their entire IT careers in their current agency/university had also worked in non-IT positions in that organization.

Job satisfaction. How satisfied were these IT professionals with their state jobs? At the extremes, the survey found that 31% were "very satisfied" with their jobs and 14% were "not too"/"not at all satisfied." However, the majority of these employees (55%) described themselves as "somewhat satisfied." This same pattern of job satisfaction was found across all types of IT positions. To understand what was working and not working for these employees, they were also asked to describe those aspects of their jobs they were most and least satisfied with. Tables 2 and 3 summarize the elements of their jobs most frequently cited in the responses, showing some of the pluses and minuses these jobs can entail.

Intrinsic factors related to the work itself dominated the responses concerning aspects of the job employees were most satisfied with. Such factors included the technical aspects of the work and working with new technologies, the intellectual challenge and creativity required to solve complex technical problems, the constant learning needed to keep up with and master skills related to new technologies, and a sense of contribution and pride in their accomplishments. Also related to the work itself were comments concerning variety and change, which kept jobs from becoming stagnant or boring, and the autonomy and flexibility they had in accomplishing their work. Employees also cited satisfaction with the work environment—the people they worked with, especially co-workers, and the professional work climate. Extrinsic aspects of their jobs contributing to satisfaction included benefits, job security, and flexible/normal work hours.

What job aspects created dissatisfaction for these state IT professionals? Not surprisingly, salary topped the list, especially salaries in comparison with the private sector. Other factors that may reflect characteristics of public-sector jobs included politics, both internal and external, and red tape, limited opportunities for advancement, inadequate formal training, inadequate resources (budget and people), and a dislike for certain types of tasks, especially administrative paperwork. Management and supervision issues, from leadership in general to specific complaints concerning supervisors, ranked high on the list, and lack of appreciation and recognition was also cited. Other areas of dissatisfaction included people issues, primarily conflicts with co-workers and users, work schedules, requirements for overtime and on-call work, boredom and lack of challenge, job pressures, and stress.

Why employees leave. The IT professionals who intended to leave their current organization and/or the IT profession in the next year also shared why they considered leaving. Not surprisingly, the three strongest themes found in their remarks echoed the themes found in the comments on job satisfaction. Salary and benefits again topped the list. The opportunity for "higher salary elsewhere," even for similar types of work and level of responsibility, was the number-one reason for leaving. However, following close behind were two other factors, both non-monetary, which contributed to the decision to leave—management and supervision-related issues, and career and professional growth. Issues of fairness, the ability to provide input and influence decisions, respect, supervisor support for and interest in the employee, and appreciation and being valued by the organization were among the issues cited, prompting some of these employees to seek jobs elsewhere. Lastly, for some employees the decision to leave was motivated primarily by opportunities elsewhere for promotion and advancement and continued professional development through better training and new types of assignments.

Back to Top

Insights from the Survey Results

The broad-brush picture of state IT jobs painted by the comments of these employees reflects three general themes:

  • Salary continues to be a major issue. Even with the gains made in compensation programs, salary remains a major concern. In order to improve their ability to attract and retain IT talent, states must continue to narrow the gap between the salaries they offer and salaries in the private sector.
  • Salary isn't everything. Perhaps one of the most important lessons to be taken from the survey findings was the degree to which the nonfinancial aspects of the job were important to the job satisfaction of these IT professionals and their decisions to stay or leave. As states continue to improve their compensation programs, it is equally important to look beyond financial incentives as the primary long-term strategy for recruitment and retention.
      A major study of IT professionals in 35 successful companies in the private sector [1] for example, found that a significant part of their motivation came from the recognition received from managers and the feeling they were an important part of the organization. These factors were also important to the state IT workers taking our survey whose suggestions for actions their organizations could take to encourage employees to stay included "recognition by management for a job well done," "pats on the back," and "praise in public." Similarly, the comments of these state IT workers mirrored other important motivational factors identified in studies of private-sector IT professionals—for example, creative and challenging work that leads to a sense of accomplishment, reasonable autonomy, and opportunities for continued learning [1, 12]. The results of our survey send a strong message that public-sector IT employees should not be viewed as "different" from their private-sector counterparts, and that a state's ability to become an employer of choice will be dependent upon dual strategies of improved compensation practices and excellence in other human resource management practices.
  • State IT jobs can have upsides. One commonly held view of the advantages of public-sector jobs is the level of job security relative to the private-sector. Our survey did find that state IT workers valued the security of their jobs. However, the survey findings point to other factors that may represent a significant difference between private- and public-sector IT jobs—differences related to work-life balance, job stress, and burnout. While some state IT employees felt dissatisfaction with the impact of their jobs on personal/family life and job stress, many felt their public-sector job offered them a more positive work-life balance than similar jobs in the private sector. These employees valued the "pro-family policies" of their organizations "family comes first," noting that "the (state IT) job draws people who are family-oriented" and "men and women can take advantage of the family-supportive environment." The generous leave benefits (such as vacations and holidays), work schedule flexibility, traditional work hours, and the ability to work from home that some of these employees enjoyed also contributed toward the positive balance of work and personal life they desired. Indeed, while reports of job stress in technology professionals is commonplace [8], and work exhaustion has been shown to be a strong contributor to job turnover [9], the lack of a significant number of comments related to job stress and workload pressures in this study may indicate that stress and burnout are less likely to be a problem in state IT jobs.

Back to Top


IT jobs in state organizations have undergone many changes. They are currently a work in progress, likely to undergo continued alterations in the foreseeable future. Our study of IT professionals in state organizations points to some of the challenges facing state IT leaders, as well as some possible avenues to strengthen their ability to attract and retain IT talent.

It is important to note that some of the messages relayed by these state IT employees may also be very relevant to other types of organizations, especially those unable to compete for IT talent on the basis of salary. Strengthening the quality of management and supervision, paying close attention to factors affecting work-life balance, and providing stimulating, challenging work with opportunities for continued learning may enable such organizations to compete favorably with firms with greater financial resources. Finally, public-sector jobs may represent an alternative for IT professionals seeking a better balance between their work and personal lives.

Back to Top


1. Agarwal, R. and Ferratt, T.W. Coping With Labor Scarcity in IT: Strategies and Practices for Effective Recruitment and Retention. Pinnaflex Educational Resources, Cincinnati, OH, 1999.

2. Carroll, J. and Moss, D. State Employee Worker Shortage: The Impending Crisis. The Council of State Governments, 2002.

3. DeMers, A. Solutions and strategies for IT recruitment and retention: A manager's guide. Public Personnel Management 31, 1 (2002), 27—40.

4. Hira, R. White collar jobs move overseas: Implications for states. Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 77, 1 (2004), 12—18.

5. Information Technology Association of America. Adding Value...Growing Careers: The Employment Outlook in Today's Increasingly Competitive IT Job Market. Sept. 2004.

6. Janairo, E. Technical Difficulties: Hiring and Keeping IT Employees in State Government. The Council of State Governments, 2000.

7. Levinson, M. Dire states: State budgets are being hit harder than even before, and state CIOs are having to slash and burn while maintaining high service levels. How do they do it? CIO 16, 16 (2003), 1—2.

8. Meta Group. 2003 IT Staffing and Compensation Guide. Mar. 2003.

9. Moore, J. One road to turnover: An examination of work exhaustion in technology professionals. MIS Quarterly 24, 1,(2000), 141—168.

10. National Academy of Public Administration. The Transforming Power of Information Technology: Making the Federal Government an Employer of Choice for IT Employees. Aug. 2001.

11. Office of Homeland Security. National Strategy for Homeland Security. July 2002;

12. Smits, S., McLean, E., and Tanner, J. Managing high-achieving information system professionals. J. Management Information Systems 9, 4 (1993), 103—120.

Back to Top


Suzanne D. Pawlowski ( is an assistant professor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

Pratim Datta ( is an associate professor of information systems at Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

Andrea L. Houston ( is an assistant professor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

Back to Top


UF1Figure. Survey of state IT professionals, demographics and job satisfaction.

Back to Top


T1Table 1. Sector comparison: Compensation and work factors for IT jobs.

T2Table 2. Survey results regarding aspects of job "most satisfied with."

T3Table 3. Survey results regarding aspects of job "least satisfied with."

Back to top

©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/0500  $5.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2005 ACM, Inc.


No entries found