Training for tomorrow

No one disputes the looming shortage in federal employees trained in information technology, but officials at the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office differ sharply on where to assign blame.

A June report from GAO states that OPM officials should intensify efforts to train federal IT employees in accordance with the E-Government Act. That law requires OPM to develop performance standards for IT training and to oversee agencies' implementation of training provisions.

"OPM has begun to draft guidance in regard to the provisions of the E-Gov Act but has yet to issue policies or evaluate agency implementation of the act," said Drew Crockett, a House Government Reform Committee spokesman. "The committee will monitor OPM's efforts to accomplish the milestones for IT training."

GAO's report recommends that the director of OPM issue governmentwide IT policies to encourage the development of performance standards for training and to urge agencies to use 22 leading private-sector practices. The report states that OPM has made only limited progress in this area. OPM officials should also focus on setting specific milestones to measure success, according to the report.

OPM officials took issue with the findings. OPM Director Kay Coles James said GAO officials overlooked the evaluations performed by the agency's Human Capital Leadership and Merit Systems Accountability Division. James also took issue with the leading practices the report highlights, arguing that they should not all be considered mandatory standards.

Having well-trained IT employees is almost inseparable from recruitment and retention concerns, according to industry experts. Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, which represents more than 500 technology companies, said competitive salaries and the type of work available are critical to maintaining trained staff. "Unless there are some fundamental changes in retention and recruitment, you'll see more and more outsourced work," he said.

The federal government spent $60 billion on IT in fiscal 2003. But if IT workers are not receiving the best training, the government cannot expect much of a return on that investment, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

By 2006, half of the government's IT workforce will be eligible to retire. It's a projection that means increased business for private contractors if the government cannot meet its IT personnel needs, Miller said. But a change that is too rapid, he added, could put stress on both the government and the contracting community.

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Training tips

Government Accountability Office officials polled agencies to determine the primary hurdles to effective information technology training. Most agency officials cited funding shortfalls and difficulty finding time for training during work hours as their biggest problems. Agency officials said they overcame those obstacles by:

Building training requirements into project and program plans.

Increasing the use of online learning.

Allowing employees to leave work early to receive training.

Prioritizing individual training requests.

Source: Government Accountability Office

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