Looking into a crystal ball for the future IT workforce

A survey of information technology workers shows potential skill shortages in areas such as project management and capital planning. Observers said the survey highlights the necessity of agency officials thinking strategically about their approach to training and hiring workers.

The Clinger-Cohen Assessment Survey was conducted by the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee in September 2003 to determine the composition of the IT workforce and identify potential skill gaps. Nearly 20,000 IT workers responded, representing about 26 percent of the federal civilian IT population.

The survey, released last month, rates skills and competencies needed to provide IT managers with the information they need to initiate hiring strategies. To Fred Thompson, practice director for e-government at Unisys Corp. and former assistant director for consulting and marketing

in the Treasury Department's chief information officer's office, the survey shows that workforce shortfalls won't get better without a shift in managers' thinking.

"The issue hasn't been solved of how to bring new skill sets into the government and how to deal with the fact that a lot of talent is leaving," Thompson said. "The government needs to decide what skills sets it needs and where it needs expertise."

Although the report provides an extensive snapshot of the IT workforce, agency officials can't do much with this data, he said. Without assessing what they will need in five or 10 years, officials are facing survey data that simply reiterates continuing workforce trends.

"What it shows is the same issues we've had in the past and haven't dealt with," he said. "They have been addressed, but not dealt with in a way that has changed the workforce."

Dave McClure, vice president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government, said the survey is a comprehensive glance at governmentwide skills, but the results need more analysis. This survey is only the first step.

A second survey, expected to be released next month, will include a projected ideal state of the workforce, said Janet Barnes, the Office of Personnel Management's CIO. Once officials assess current skills, they can determine how to improve workforce planning, she said.

The projected state of the workforce will allow officials to gaze into the future, McClure said, and discuss whether to outsource certain skills and needs.

"It opens up a very rich discussion about strategic outsourcing and [if there is] a difference between what we have used our in-house skills for vs. what we need in the future," he said.

The survey rated workers' proficiency in certain general and technical competencies, such as configuration management and telecommunications. Workers responded that they had intermediate

or greater proficiency in competencies such as hardware — 67 percent of the respondents — and configuration management — 65 percent of them. Project management ranked eighth with

about 58 percent of respondents claiming proficiency.

In the area of general competencies needed by most personnel regardless of their jobs, interpersonal skills rated the highest among the competencies, with 90 percent of respondents having intermediate or greater proficiency. Problem solving was a close second with 89 percent, and contracting and procurement came in last with 44.5 percent.

Organizational awareness, a competency generally associated with veteran employees, ranked below leadership and decision-making with 79 percent of respondents claiming proficiency. The survey also found that many IT workers don't spend a lot of time on knowledge management. More than 90 percent of respondents said they spend moderate or minimal time on that task.

Similarly, the survey found that understanding user requirements, or knowing the personnel's technology needs, was a skill that impending workforce retirement could impact, Thompson said.

"That's not easily replaced," he said. "To me, that's the challenge."

Retirements will affect some technical competencies, such as hardware and project and configuration management, more than others, according to the survey. Likewise, interpersonal skills, problem solving and oral communication were the three general competencies most likely to be impacted, it found.

Competencies such as capital planning and procurement and skills such as federal enterprise architecture are related to specialized job activities and reflect the government's changing mission. These newer skills may need development, the survey states.

Respondents also indicated areas in which they received certification. They have the most credentials in general IT-related technical and Microsoft certification, with 10 percent of the respondents earning each. On the other hand, only 3 percent of the respondents claim project management certification, even though it has been a recent focus for the CIO Council and IT managers governmentwide.

"I thought the certification levels were very low, lower than I would have expected them to be," Thompson said. "That's way out of alignment with what you would see in a private-sector organization."

The survey also tracks the amount of time respondents spend on certain specialized activities, which revealed possible skills gaps. For example, 80 percent claimed to spend moderate, minimal or no time on project management, indicating a lack of competency in those areas.

"There were low percentages of people spending time on IT project management," McClure said. "That's a glaring finding right there. We certainly have more than

300-something IT projects in the federal government, and it does highlight" that there are not enough project managers.

McClure also noted low percentages of extensive time spent on IT security, workforce management, privacy, capital planning and investment. Seventy-two percent of workers said they spend little or no time on enterprise architecture, and 74 percent said the same about e-government.

These numbers may indicate, however, that only a small number of personnel

focus on these areas and that the newer concepts take time to catch on, Thompson said.

"It takes a long time for some of these ideas and concepts to mellow, so it doesn't surprise me that things like enterprise

architecture and e-government haven't really penetrated yet," he said. "But I do think it takes the conscious management decision to make it happen."

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