Competing for tech talent in the public sector

The public sector faces specific challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining digital talent, writes Gabriela Vogel.

Gabriela Vogel

Public and private sector organisations alike face a raft of talent challenges, ranging from changing employee preferences and an aging workforce, through to hierarchical management models. Across the board, there’s a shortage of digital and technology skills.

The Federal budget announcement last week is attempting to address this, with the government announcing a further $1.1 billion boost to its Digital Economy Strategy launched last year. Almost $4 million of this has been allocated towards helping women transition mid-career to a digital workforce. In addition, small businesses have been given a $1.6 billion digital and skills tax boost, aimed at supporting future growth, driving productivity gains and attracting and retaining staff.

While this is a welcomed uplift for Australia’s digital economy, one of the problems plaguing the labour market is staff retention. A Gartner global labour market survey found that in the last three months of 2021, 39 per cent of IT workers in Australia were actively seeking new jobs, higher than the global average of 32 per cent. Only 23.6 percent of Australia’s IT workers had a high intent to stay in their current job. The key message here is hold on to the good people you’ve got!

The public sector faces specific challenges when competing with private employers. Private sector companies have more flexibility. Their pay policies, rewards and benefits such as variable pay and performance-based bonuses, shorter time to hire, and a personalised and swift onboarding process, make it harder to compete for talent.

Legacy systems and an ageing workforce

There are growing skills shortages in legacy support areas, which aren’t attractive to the new generation workforce. Those who work with these legacy systems too often spend too much time struggling with the technology, grappling with paperwork and working on repetitive manual tasks.

An increasingly aging workforce creates workforce imbalance. The lack of talent pipeline and succession planning, which would usually be the solution, is now catching up with many government agencies as the workforce ages. A KPMG study found that approximately 30 per cent of government employees globally are 55 and older, although that figure is much lower in Australia at 17 per cent.

Talent shifts from the public to the private sector also increases the skills gap. Talented employees might consider the private sector a better option for customised learning and development. This, in turn, forces leading government organisations to increase spending and dependency on third-party vendors to design and deliver transformation initiatives.

Talented employees might consider the private sector a better option for customised learning and development.

However, there remains much that public sector organisations can do to compete for tech talent. Consider the following strategies:

1. Accelerate training and development through academy programs

Government organisations are scrambling to upskill and re-skill their civil servants. This is not only to adopt new digital tools, but also to support, maintain and use them productively. This means creating academy programs for civil servants with both digital and non-digital backgrounds.

This is where most government organisations are investing time, energy and budget — intern and apprenticeship programs, succession programs, knowledge transfer programs, digital academy, among others.

2. Test different mobility and flexible work models

A range of different mobility and flexible work models are being tested, such as the type of work and where work is conducted. It’s hard to identify one single flexible model across government organisations, but even the most restricted and conservative agencies are piloting flexible models, usually starting in IT given their work dynamics.

Regional hubs implemented by the Victorian Government showcase this flexibility. Public sector workers relocating from Melbourne now have regional offices to work from known as GovHubs. The Ballarat GovHub is a great example, helping to revitalise a major part of the Ballarat CBD and generate long-term jobs growth. This initiative was planned before the pandemic, but has since gained new meaning, importance and adoption levels.

3. Invest in diversity, equity and inclusion

With competition for digital and technology talent rising and societal pressure for more diverse, equitable and inclusive environments, government organisations are increasing their efforts to attract and retain untapped talent.

Revisions are being made to the recruitment and hiring process in government to remove potential bias, tailored programs to hire diverse talent, specific mentorship and sponsorship programs, targets for diversity hire, and tailored employment value propositions (EVP) to focus on creating a more inclusive environment.

4. Revise the EVP for technology

Government organisations are working in a multi-generational workforce and expectations are changing. In response, several entities are rethinking their EVP, reinforcing the meaning of serving and contributing to a better society. Gartner is seeing this more in individual agencies and institutions, with very few at a national level.

The Australian Federal Government has designed the APS Workforce Strategy 2025 in response to increasing desire for more flexible working and diversity. An important part of strategy is to attract, build and retain skills and talent through to end of 2025.

5. Invest in partnerships and ecosystems

Most government institutions are exploring partnerships with both private and public entities — educational institutions, ministries, departments, agencies, LGAs and NGOs — to push learning and development to another level. Many are using these partnerships and are building supporting ecosystems to promote collaboration and sharing of knowledge and experience on digital.

6. Reform HCM systems and L&D technology

One of the key competitive advantages that the private sector has over the public sector is time to hire and career development. Knowing this, several government organisations are using technology to modernise and help facilitate learning

7. Change job classifications and wages

Some government agencies are increasing pay to compete with the private sector. Not an easy task, but those who have been able to work at this level have been doing so for specialised and scarce talent in digital and technology.

8. Join forces and apply a whole enterprise approach

Government organisations are realising that “together they are more.” So, instead of competing for talent individually, they’re creating whole-of-enterprise workforce strategies and initiatives to recruit and retain digital/technology professionals.

The APS Workforce Strategy is a great example. It was designed across the civil servant journey and is focused on embracing data, technology and flexible/responsive workforce models, strengthening integrity and purposeful leadership, as well as attracting, building and retaining skills, expertise and talent.

The Australian Public Service Commission will work with agencies to coordinate the delivery of crucial outputs across the service. It won’t replace the agency-level strategic and operational planning process, but it will support agencies in the process.

*Gabriela Vogel is a senior research director in Gartner’s Executive Leadership team who advises senior executives on how to lead in times of change.

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