Skills gaps tough to identify, correct

President's Management Agenda December 2002 update on human capital

Determining how to fill a skills gap within an agency is a final step in addressing its workforce challenges, but it is not an easy decision to make, according to senior officials.

The Office of Management and Budget, as part of the President's Management Agenda, called for agencies to develop strategic workforce plans outlining their current employees' skills and capabilities and their needs for the future.

The E-Government Act of 2002 reinforces this effort. By September, when agencies submit their plans with their fiscal 2005 budget requests, officials should have a much better idea of what they do and do not have, said Mark Forman, administrator of OMB's Office of E-Government and Information Technology.

"We don't know exactly the magnitude of this past project management," he said.

The obvious ways to fill the gaps are to train existing staff and hire new people. But OMB's revised Circular A-76 process for having the private sector bid on performing federal functions may now provide a third option, officials say.

"We're just looking at it as another tool to address our business needs," said Gail Lovelace, chief human capital officer and chief people officer at the General Services Administration.

The competitive sourcing process will not be a major tool, experts say, because it is primarily intended for functions that are not considered inherently governmental. Most skill assessments focus on core or mission functions.

However, it is likely that the larger the skills gap identified by an agency's assessment, the more agency managers will lean toward competitive sourcing, said Al Ressler, director of the Center for Human Resources Management at the National Academy of Public Administration.

"Having the skills gap makes competitive sourcing more attractive to management," he said, because the bigger the gap is, the more it will cost the agency in time and money to fill it on its own, and many managers may not feel it's worth the trouble.

Hiring new employees and providing education and targeted training to increase the skills of existing personnel, will still be the National Science Foundation's first choices, said Joseph Burt, acting director of NSF's Human Resources Management Division. "But there will be so many different cases...it will be hard to have a cookie-cutter process."

And should agencies decide to go the competitive sourcing route, they may need to offer additional training anyway, Ressler said. If the industry offeror wins, federal employees often will not have the skills necessary to oversee the contractor's performance, he said.

"What we're leaning toward is having the federal workforce become a manager of service providers," Burt said. "Instead of being a government of doers, we're becoming a government of managers."

Figuring out the extent of skills gaps — and where they are — is no easy process, though, because there is no common methodology for developing workforce plans.

"I'm pretty sure that most agencies are struggling with this," Lovelace said. GSA is already searching for methods government and the private sector use to help with its skills assessment, she said.

Many agencies begin by taking inventory of their current competencies, then considering what they will need in the years ahead. That second step is hard because of the difficulty of predicting the future, Lovelace said, but until it is done, there is no way to tell where the gaps are.

NSF is putting together its plan with the help of extensive interviews and focus groups with agency employees, concentrating on program directors and those involved with key functions, Burt said.

NSF is using a contractor to help create its new competency-based personnel system. The contractor is examining government and industry best practices for determining skill needs. But this is an area where the new Chief Human Capital Officers Council could really help all agencies, Burt said.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to use the council as a way to collect that kind of information," he said.

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Weighing the option

Federal agencies have several choices when it comes to filling skills gaps, each of which has its own pluses and minuses: * Training existing personnel — Can be costly, both in funding and in the amount of time it takes people away from their jobs, but it builds on current expertise.

* Hiring new personnel — Keeps the function and knowledge in-house, but it is not always easy to find people with the necessary expertise.

* Outsourcing — Easy to bring in expertise, but it is important to have federal managers oversee the contractors.

* Competitive sourcing — Allows agencies to gauge the group best able to provide the service, but for most agencies it is a new process that must be tested before people in government or industry will trust it.

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