GAO study shows need for workforce plans

Shifting workforce demographics are leading to a shortage of skilled workers, and analysts say this should prompt agency officials to rethink their human resources plans.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office highlights challenges facing the country's workforce in the next 20 years, such as aging employees and a highly diversified labor force. The changing characteristics point to a greater need for training and retention programs. However, for the federal government, the concerns are more immediate, experts say, and agency officials must look further into the future for workforce planning.

"It helps highlight the need for the human capital strategies in agencies to be really forward-thinking as opposed to replacing the as-is," said Dave McClure, vice president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government.

GAO officials brought together experts from the government, academia and labor think tanks to examine the changing workforce and resulting needs. During the next two decades, the workforce will increasingly tighten and the skills gap will grow, said Sigurd Nilsen, GAO's director for education, workforce and income security issues. The forum's report focuses on the need to shift policies and procedures to encourage aging workers to stay and to ensure that new workers have the necessary training.

"We [must] focus on doing all we can to have an adequate supply of workers with the right skills," Nilsen said. "Where do we need to look at our public policies? Where are they...not meeting today's and the future's needs and [are instead] focused on past needs?"

Fred Thompson, practice director for e-government at Unisys Corp. and former assistant director for consulting and marketing in the Treasury Department's Office of the Chief Information Officer, said the federal government's human resources concerns may be more urgent than those of the private sector. "I don't think that issue is 20 years away for the federal government," he said. "I think it's seven to 10 years away."

The government's benefit is that money is available for the training necessary to find and keep good employees, Thompson said. The key is to ensure officials do not spend funding, which is usually in a general salaries and expenses pot, for other purposes.

"The idea of investment in training is something the federal government can do more easily than other institutions, and it does strike me as one area where the government can do better," he said. "But training turns out to be from a general account, and it tends to get put into other activities."

Adjusting policies can help focus the spending on training, Thompson said. For example, tax credits to individuals and employees, mentioned in the GAO report as a solution for maintaining a steady supply of skilled workers, may provide incentives for managers to promote training.

In the past several years, the nature of the government workforce has shifted from employees entering the government for long-term careers to workers who come in and out of government at different points in their careers, McClure said. Employees were once poised for 20-year stints with the government, but now workers may be at an agency for only a few years. The change is forcing agency officials to develop a new strategy, McClure said.

"That will be a different workforce management challenge than has been in the past," he said. "The plan has to be alive and vibrant and very flexible and ongoing because your workforce demands may [need] that updating and revisiting more frequently."

Michael is a Chicago-based freelance journalist.

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PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

A recent forum led by the Government Accountability Office examined the changing demographics and challenges facing the entire U.S. workforce.

Here are a few findings noted in the report:

The aging baby-boom generation may lead to tighter labor markets in the next 20 years.

The United States is moving toward a more knowledge-based economy, increasing the need for workers to have more advanced and specialized skills.

Workers need more training, yet it is unclear who is responsible for the training. There seems to be a decrease in the availability of employer-based training programs.

Career education and apprenticeship programs are not given enough attention.

Employers should take the lead in determining the workforce's training needs.

Source: Government Accountability Office

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