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Competing for IT talent is crucial, despite constraints

Apr. 23, 2014 - 10:31AM   |  
By MARC PEARL   |   Comments
Marc Pearl is president and CEO of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council. / File

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The government relies on information technology to handle its most basic administrative, as well as its most complex security-related tasks. Yet, IT budgets are, at best, flat. Reporting on the administration’s budget proposal last month, Business Week said, “U.S. government spending on information technology would decline 1.2 percent next fiscal year.” While IT expenditures rose steadily from 2001 to 2009 by about 7.1 percent per year, more recently it “has effectively been halted’ with no growth from 2009 to 2013, according to the budget.

This is occurring at a time when the need for the most capable IT experts is greater than ever and our federal agencies are struggling to attract the necessary number of qualified IT professionals. But do we even know what defines a “qualified IT professional”?

The IT sector is growing increasingly complex, dynamic, and powerful through innovations such as automated systems, data centers, cloud computing, and the deployment of secure mobile devices. The upsurge of affordable, accessible data provides the potential for powerful information gathering and analytical tools for both government and industry. Specialized skills are needed to harness this opportunity, concurrent with increased security to protect sensitive information. It is no longer about just recruiting the best technology experts, but hiring those with unique skills in finding, deciphering, and manipulating valuable information.

As technology needs are identified and projects become more complex, the in-house IT “expert” with vocational or on-the-job training could soon become a dinosaur. Instead, information technology professionals at remote data centers and information specialists who can utilize and present vast amounts of data in both a useful and user friendly way will be essential.

Given the need to function in an IT-cost cutting environment, the inherent question is whether our federal agencies can attract top information technology professionals to tackle these challenges (and from my vantage point, the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for security oversight in the .gov and .com space, in particular). The agencies will not only find it increasingly difficult to compete with the private sector for this talent, but also against one another.

Rather than relying on federal agencies to capitalize on new opportunities in house, the government may need to find ways to creatively leverage industry to help train experts and provide other technology services.

Government and industry must work together to nurture an environment that focuses as much (or more) on the “I” of information, as it currently does on the “T” of technology. Both must learn to better utilize more complexity in storing and gaining useful access to big data, while dealing with the reality of economic constraints and effectively responding to the demand for resource flexibility.

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