Maine Is Building Its Tech Workforce From the Ground Up

The Maine Statehouse in Augusta

The Maine Statehouse in Augusta Shutterstock

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The Office of Information Technology realized it had a retirement problem. In response, it took on the bigger problem of building a strong technology workforce across the state.

Jim Smith has been Maine’s chief information officer for more than six years now. As the average tenure for a state CIO is about two years, that qualifies as an achievement in its own right. What Smith is most proud of over his tenure, though, is utilizing his offices’ expertise to both build and inspire the next generation of IT leadership.

“We've had students come to us and say, ‘I changed what I was going to do because I learned about IT through you guys,’” Smith said in an interview with Route Fifty during the National Association of State Chief Information Officers midyear conference. “We've had interns come in through those programs who are now full-time employees.”

While Smith believes during his tenure they have streamlined information technology for the state and improved their cybersecurity posture, this “social aspect” stands out most to him.

“I think it's that opportunity to give back and really help the community a bit,” Smith said.

With almost a quarter of his staff of 400 eligible to retire, ensuring the office is getting new talent is vital. But Smith and his team also know there are larger headwinds in that fight. As unemployment continues to drop (now at 3 percent in Maine) and demand for technology professionals continues to grow, attracting and retaining a talented technology staff is difficult for any public sector organization.

Smith and his team—notably Kelly Rickert, director of workforce innovations in Maine’s Office of Information Technology—has looked beyond just filling slots, building a statewide imperative that is helping train the next generation of information technology professionals.

Those efforts begin by getting teenagers interested in technology. The Office of Information Technology hosts High School Technology Night, where students get hands-on opportunities with everything from robotics and drones to cyber forensics. Smith estimates one thousand kids have gone through that program alone.

The Office of Information Technology team has also been backing the SANS Institute Girls Go Cyberstart initiative, a national competition that uses computer games to introduce girls to the basics of cybersecurity. Last year, Maine ranked 5th in the nation for registering high school girls.

“In Maine, we want to expose as many of our young adults to IT cyber careers and other technical careers that can help them reach long term personal and professional goals,” said Rickert told the Bangor Daily News in January. “Ideally, we want our students to live, learn, and work in Maine, and to develop the skills necessary to hold productive and meaningful jobs. This will enhance the ability to continue to attract businesses needing critical cyber and IT skills to come to Maine.”

Beyond high school, Smith’s team is working with the state’s economic development agencies to not only grow the pipeline more broadly and direct additional individuals toward the state’s IT workforce.

They have built out a robust internship program that includes opportunities to meet with and present to the governor. They boast of more than 70 percent of interns transitioning into state jobs in their 2017 annual report.

“It's really gotten everyone's attention and we work a lot of with the economic development area and try different ways,” Smith explained. “We're sort of looking every pathway we can find to say, ‘Where are those next set of resources coming [from]?’”

His team also does more traditional outreach, such as visits to colleges, as well as identifying veterans returning to the workforce. However, to compete with technology companies, they’ve focused their advertising and recruitment process to attract the type of workforce they need—going with social media and other digital platforms for much of their recruitment and branding strategy, and providing a “paperless experience” for applicants.

Below is a video with our full interview with Maine’s CIO Jim Smith, covering his team’s efforts to inspire the next generation of technology leaders and how multiple states have banded together to build a common unemployment system.

You can also find key takeaways from the interview, edited for length and clarity, below.

On What He Wishes He Knew Coming Into the Job Six Years Ago

“I'm not sure you can know it all when you come from the private sector… I was so amazed when I took this job to understand all the things the state touches.

It's just ... It's encompassing. Everything from corrections, obviously, to health and human services to the state police to everything you can think of in Department of Labor. I didn't realize how big the job was when I took it.”

On the State of the IT Workforce:

“It's under 3 percent unemployment [in Maine]. I don't even remember that in my career, getting to those levels. In IT, we've been talking about the silver tsunami coming for years, where we knew people were going to retire, the aging workforce, and not enough people entering IT. Now, you've got a stronger economy of that, too. It's really gotten everyone's attention and we work a lot of with the economic development area and try different ways.”

On a Consortium of States Building a Multistate Approach to Technology Problems:

“Cost-savings has been substantial. As you can imagine, you are sharing one set of code among four states, and you can make some particular changes and things like that but you have definitely reduced the maintenance cost. It is the way to go.

There are challenges, of course. It is a different level of governance. Now, all of a sudden, you have three or four states governing. You have lawyers involved when you are doing contracts and things like that and project management. The states differ in how they do project management stuff, but those things can be worked out.

At the end of the day, it is successful.”

On Whether the Federal Government Has a Role to Play in State Collaboration:

“It does start at the federal level because they have the money. As they push states to say there are better ways to do this, I think that has a lot of influence on the states.

I think there's a limit on how many states can work together. I don't think you're going to have 50 states sharing software because ... the governance gets overwhelming but, if you get four or five states together and say, "No, we have a common purpose here and we're going to share software," I think that can work very, very well.”

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs at Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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