Could Dickens haven been talking about El Paso when he wrote of the best of times and the worst of times? The Milken Institute recently named the west Texas city only one of six in the United States - and among five in Texas - that had regained all the jobs lost during the recession. At the same time, The Brookings Institution's December 2011 Metro Monitor report lists it among the 20 weakest-performing U.S. metro areas. Ouch.
Against this backdrop, Miguel Gamio Jr., 35, director of the city's Information Technology Department since April, has been trying to reorganize the department and, frustrated at the slow pace of hiring, organized a job fair at City Hall that was held Thursday night. I spoke to Gamio on Thursday before the fair, who told me that when he took the job, the department was operating without a director and with 40 percent of positions vacant. He's since been working to restructure the department, update job descriptions and make salaries competitive. The El Paso Times printed a list of open positions, but Gamio said his immediate goal was to hire about 10 people. And he was keeping an open mind, based on who showed up:
We have some teams that are new to the organization, like we established a project management office, and some job descriptions were new, like VoIP, because they didn't exist before. So we have a bunch of job specs that we can hire for. I'm trying to fill about 10 people. I don't know until I see who we get, what roles they're going to fit into. We don't have a support services II [position] that's hard and fast and has to be filled. I need a support services person, but will we end up with a II or III or I? It depends on who shows up and what our management team decides ultimately is the best fit for the group.
His idea was to bring together in one room everybody who would be involved in the hiring process - not cut any steps out, but to speed things up. Speed dating in IT recruiting? It helped that the job fair generated a lot of local media coverage. It's an obvious good-news story about high-paying jobs at a time when the nation's unemployment level remains unnervingly high.
State and local governments have been among the leading sectors in job cuts this year, though. Yet at the same time, USA Today reported last June that federal government workers in some agencies were more likely to die of old age than lose their jobs. So I asked Gamio what he tells candidates about the attraction of a government job vs. a private-sector position. His tactic is to "sell" the opportunity:
I don't recruit with the idea that a government job is long and stable and secure. That's not our appeal. Our appeal is much like the private sector. We're looking for a highly productive, highly competitive, highly motivated work force. We're working on some projects that are monumental to our community and those are things we feel really good people are going to be really excited to be participating in.
We just did the ribbon-cutting and we're just getting ready to begin migrating data to a new data center that's an HP Pod. I think we're the first municipality, maybe in the country, that has used this new data center solution. We're in a shared services agreement with the county. We're sharing staff and management and efforts on projects like the data center. We're doing a PeopleSoft reimplementation that's significant to the city operations. We're launching a citywide wireless microwave infrastructure. We have significant Wi-Fi initiatives across the city. We're blanketing downtown. We're working on a citywide Cisco VoIP deployment. We're working on some significant upgrades to our software support system. ...
Any one of these, I refer to them as decade projects. These are projects that if you have them on your resume, they're relatively career-defining. If you're involved in a multimillion-dollar PeopleSoft reimplementation, that's significant on your resume.
IT managers across the country cite difficulty in finding the people with the right skills and no doubt El Paso could take a lesson from the creative recruiting of defense contractor B&W Pantex to bring engineers to Amarillo, Texas. I asked Gamio whether there were specific circumstances that made IT recruiting more difficult in El Paso than in any other region. The area's big military presence - he said Fort Bliss had actually expanded in the most recent base consolidations - isn't siphoning off tech talent. Instead, he said:
We don't have a lot of heavy IT competitors here in town to nurture an IT talent pool. The conventional wisdom is that makes it more difficult ... We're out here in the tip of west Texas. Frankly, I think we've done a less-than-stellar job in reaching out to those people. And with this event, we've gotten a lot of attention. We've gotten calls from people in Phoenix, Santa Fe and San Antonio saying they're going to be here. A lot of it is how much energy you put into it. I think the talent exists, but we just haven't done the work to energize, engage and get those people excited about stepping up in their careers.