(David Gindhart and Rob Hume, co-chairs)
During Fall 2015/Spring 2016, the RCCI IT Career Track Working Group focused on how Penn State could better attract and retain the very best IT colleagues. We want to create a vision of a career track for IT folks that will make Penn State more attractive to potential hires—and will make them feel they do not have to move elsewhere to advance their careers.
Accomplishments for Fall 2015/Spring 2016:
- The IT Career Track WG met with key parties to identify the big picture challenges facing IT and to provide a set of recommendations for short-term actions that could contribute towards the above goals.
- In response to an invitation from Nick Jones and David Gray, we provided a set of suggestions after consultation with the RCCI EC. These are summarized below.
Big Picture IT Career Tracks Challenges:
- Overall Human Capital Management (HCM) Strategy for IT Staff
Until recently, Penn State has entirely lacked an overall strategy for managing our human capital that would help to build a highly effective, performance-based IT organization through recruiting, acquiring, motivating, and rewarding a high-performing, top quality workforce.
- Job Definitions and Classifications
We believe that we need to carry out a complete rethinking on job definitions and classifications as part of an overall HCM strategy, but this seems best attempted after projected reorganization of IT operations throughout the university.
- Salary Levels and Equity
Similarly major issues concerning salary levels and salary equity are hard to address sensibly or efficiently until job definitions and classifications are sorted out.
- “Shadow IT.” A lot of research IT functions are currently carried out by “research scientists,” “research associates,” and graduate students, rather than by “IT staff.” They tend to be supported on grants (which is hard or impossible to do for “IT services people”), which leaves them vulnerable to “soft money” problems. Should Penn State be doing more to clarify and regularize “staff scientist” and “research associate” positions? Some relevant questions in this regard are as follows:
- Might we, for example, house a group of such people in ICS with the understanding that they could be deployed wherever needed as different units came up with funds?
- Should colleges and institutes be encouraged to establish domain-specific upper-end research computing help?
- Can we, for example, pay such upper-end tech folks higher than usual salaries largely dependent on soft money—but guaranteeing that we would carry them for (say) up to one year if the grants do not come through? Purdue is paying such people considerably higher salaries to offset insecurity, but it is also offering relatively short-term backup funds from the university (one year, if we understood correctly).
Short-term Actions Recommended:
Skill building is critical to a successful IT workforce. How can we best encourage and support people who want to extend and improve their skills and credentials?
We hope that the university will enunciate as a general principle its desire to retain the services of employees who grow, educate themselves, gain new skills, and who will be enthusiastically encouraged to seek higher-level jobs within Penn State. We believe that investment in training is a strategic investment that greatly benefits the university. We need a “professional development strategy.”
In discussions with Susan Basso she raised concerns about the practicability of some of the proposals we are listing here. However, she offered to work with us to explore ways to achieve some of the same outcomes. Here are our suggestions:
- We want to mount an IT Career Track Website listing both local and non-local training possibilities—online, summer institutes, training sessions elsewhere. We see this as a joint enterprise to be carried out in partnership with HR. We point out that where multiple people want training in a particular subject or program bringing an instructor to University Park for three days or a week can be cheaper than sending a flock of people elsewhere. This has been done in the past. Susan Basso has offered to partner with us and explore use of the Learning Resource Network (LRN) as a possible vehicle for this information.
- We would like to establish a fund to pay for, or at least help pay for, such training when fees must be paid. Our current model de-incentivizes training. Why should your boss pay for training not needed for the job you already occupy? If you get the training, you will very likely leave your job (and possibly leave Penn State). But to attract and retain good people we need to offer them paths to betterment. Annual budgets for professional development vary widely from a few thousand dollars per person to zero. Many units have no funds for training that goes beyond their own immediate needs. They cannot realistically be expended to pay for training that will benefit the employee but probably not the unit. We propose a central pool of funds for individuals who support research but are not receiving sufficient funding for needed professional development. RCCI would be glad to set up a process and a committee to accept and vet the applications. As a secondary benefit, this process would help us understand the size and scope of the “shadow IT” problem noted in I.4 above. We suggest that people who are given training should be expected to “review” the training for the benefit of others who might be interested.
- We suggest that ICS should offer some non-credit instruction for IT colleagues, faculty, and graduate students. We suggest also that more internships should be funded there and elsewhere in IT units. This gives students valuable job experience and can get a lot of routine work done relatively cheaply. In comparison with peer institutions we use far fewer students in IT roles.
- We recommend encouraging colleges and institutes to hire tech folks for an “extra” 8 hours per week for a 20% salary supplement to vary their work and extend their domain expertise. We believe this is currently permitted only outside one’s own unit—i.e., Huck cannot hire someone from the Materials Research Institute. Could we institute an exceptions process? We suggest that such opportunities should be posted on the Career Track Website so that interested parties could apply to whatever unit wants extra help, whether for short or longer duration. We point out that ICS pays Chuck Pavloski in EMS a supplement and that they believe he is saving them a lot of time and money by dealing locally in EMS with questions they would otherwise have to field from numerous PIs—and Chuck possesses domain expertise that no one in ICS has.
- We propose promulgating a policy by which people could be “seconded” to work on a full- or part-time basis on a particular project. “Mini-sabbaticals” greatly attract some IT people: we would like to let them spend three months or six months working as part of a research team that needs their skills. This would be internal—an “intra-university” program. We would like also to explore the possibilities of “inter-university” exchange programs with peer institutions. Rich Rauscher (Hershey) has twice left Penn State. He says, “Frankly, if I had been in a position that would allow inter-university exchange, I would have felt much less interest in leaving. I have learned a great deal from changing employers.” People with children in school or spousal job complications would probably not want to do this unless they could do it mostly on a telecommuting basis. We want to explore these possibilities and try some as experiments. HR has expressed willingness to experiment with a “job exchange” program that would let current employees experiment with temporary or part-time employment elsewhere in the university.
- We believe that people who want to work on an advanced degree (MA, MS, or Ph.D., and arguably MBA) should be encouraged to do so. HR 37 says that full-time employees are entitled to a 75% discount on both resident instruction and World Campus (specifically excluding College of Medicine, Smeal Executive MBA, and both law schools). Obviously the employee would have to be accepted by a graduate program. We suggest a larger discount for graduate degrees. We have also heard the suggestion that for some people “time” is more valuable than “money.” EMS has reportedly permitted employees pursuing advanced degrees to devote as much as 25% of their “working hours” to thesis work. We endorse this idea. We have heard the argument that (as with faculty sabbaticals) we should require a specified term of service after receipt of degree or repayment of the subsidy. We believe that this would be hard to enforce and psychologically counterproductive. The degrees would not be quickly earned, and we would have the benefit of the employee’s service for those years. And with luck and good management, many of them would transition into other jobs at Penn State.
- We believe that IT unit Directors should be encouraged to permit their people to request that they be allowed to devote up to 10% or even 20% of their working time to “self-development” (however pursued) with the understanding that they would then present what they have learned to their colleagues. (We understand that Hershey has been doing this in recent years.) Good people do not like to vegetate.
- We recommend that research computing try some pilot experiments in telecommuting. Some jobs seem to lend themselves to this solution; others do not. Domain-expert code optimization, for example, seems highly plausible.
- We point out that the people who operate advanced instrumentation in labs (e.g., the Materials Characterization Lab in the Materials Research Institute) have very similar career track issues and would benefit from improved career track possibilities. What we are proposing here should translate into that realm, and perhaps into others.
A questionnaire based on these proposals was sent to the ECOS techies, thirteen of whom responded. Reactions were almost unanimously gung-ho. Twenty responses from CLA techies were more varied, but overall enthusiastic.
Planned Work for Fall 2016/Spring 2017:
We do not believe that the above suggestions would be enormously expensive, but they would make a very large difference to the working environment that Penn State provides for our IT employees. Instituting these changes will help us hire and retain better IT colleagues. We cannot be certain how well any one of these initiatives will work. We urge that they be tried on an essentially experimental basis with seed money. What seems valuable can be continued or built upon. We look forward to additional discussion regarding the next steps in implementing the above recommendations.