This is the third story in a series about the tech worker shortage facing local governments.
In its search for technology workers, Philadelphia wanted to hire people who understand and are committed to the city’s public-sector mission in addition to having the needed skills.
People already working for the city seemed like a logical place to start.
“There are a lot of really good candidates to be user experience designers and/or software engineers within the organization,” said Sara Hall, director of digital services for the city of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology. Hall noted that city employees in public-facing positions often have “the core skills that we find really important for designers and developers” since they are often problem-solvers.
Philadelphia designed an apprenticeship program, teaching technology skills to current employees with the ultimate goal of having them move into these jobs full-time.
Local governments around the country are having trouble hiring tech workers, as they typically can find higher salaries at private companies. Philadelphia and other cities are pivoting to fill their tech worker needs by retraining existing employees, teaching them the skills needed for everything from maintaining city websites to ensuring they serve residents efficiently.
In 2021, Philadelphia held information sessions for existing employees on its new program to train and “upskill” employees, and the response was overwhelming, Hall said. Over 500 people attended the sessions, with more than 350 people applying for three open roles, she said. The program was available to all local government employees, but preference in hiring went to staff making under $50,000 per year.
The pilot phase of Philadelphia’s two-year apprenticeship program began in February. The three apprentices previously worked in the innovation and technology, public property and water departments. Two of them are training to be software engineers; the other will become a user experience designer.
During the program's first three months, the participants attended boot camps and began earning a salary of $60,000 a year. Philadelphia partnered with coding training programs General Assembly and LaunchCode to educate them in user experience design and software engineering, respectively. After they completed their training, the participants started their two-year apprenticeships in the OIT office. “At the conclusion of the program, apprentices will have had two years of industry specific work and a portfolio that demonstrates their ability to work on various projects. Apprentices will be qualified for a variety of mid-level roles in the technology industry,” according to the program website. Hall said the city will likely offer the apprenticeship program every two years.
She said that adding just three people to the tech staff has increased capacity significantly. The user experience team has five people, including the apprentice, while the software engineering team has 15 people, including the two apprentices. It has also given the tech teams more institutional knowledge and diversity.
“As we see [the apprentices] progress into their second year, they'll be able to work a little bit more independently and take on more work,” Hall said. “So we're increasing capacity, which then increases our ability to continue to build.”
Buy-in and inclusivity are essential to successful retraining
Training workers on new skills is important, and even private companies are falling behind, said Laurie Giddens, an assistant professor in the information technology and decision sciences department at the University of North Texas’ business school.
“That typically means it's even more difficult [to do so] for public jobs,” said Giddens, who co-wrote a 2021 report on “reskilling” workers. She said that offering such training helps people and governments do their job more efficiently, and it allows them to gather data to gauge how well they serve people.
It’s important to get buy-in from staff, Giddens said. While conducting research for the report, she found that if staff members volunteer for training and justify their interest, they tend to be more engaged in the process and more likely to apply their education.
She also said it’s essential to give everyone an opportunity to learn new tech skills and transition into other roles, no matter what department they’re in or how long they’ve worked there.
“You might have people that have been in your organization 20 years, and you might think, 'Oh, they've been doing accounting for 20 years. They don't want to do technology stuff,'” Giddens said. “But we found that that's not the case.” Many people have the aptitude and motivation to learn, no matter their background, she said.
Governments can partner with universities and nonprofits to offer training, but they must also ensure that staff members have opportunities to use that education. For instance, Giddens said that if an employee’s training was eight hours, their organization could give that person eight hours over the next two months to evaluate how to apply the education.
In Minneapolis, the city began a program called MSP TechHire to train lower-income residents in tech skills to increase diversity among the city’s tech workforce and local government. Tammy Dickinson, co-founder of MSP TechHire and director of the city’s Step Up workforce development program, said that the city works with the Nerdery, a local boot camp provider, and provides 30 to 40 scholarships annually to help people learn tech skills.
Minneapolis has hired program graduates and trained a worker employed by the city’s help desk for a new role as a software developer.
In addition to making sure governments can do their jobs effectively, upskilling is also a way for the public sector to be more active in how it hires and retains people, said Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s deputy chief information officer of public technology and innovation.
“Traditionally, we don't recruit very well in the public sector,” he said: Governments expect great candidates to apply simply because they post open jobs online, but “It just doesn't work that way,” he said. Instead, they must make an effort to find qualified people.