Federal IT workforce needs training investment, expert says

The search for skilled IT professionals has been an ongoing struggle for the federal government, but there also should be an emphasis on finding ways – and funds -- to train and motivate those already in the workforce, according to one expert.

The framework to build a 21st-century government to better serve citizens pushes agencies to implement digital tools, but missions can't be met successfully without the appropriate investment in development and training for IT professionals, said Julie Anderson, chief operating officer and managing director at Civitas Group

Despite the world of austerity, Anderson said she believes it’s essential to have a portion of the IT budget within the department reserved for training. Imagine you need a new suit and go to a discount store looking for a bargain, Anderson said. You spend $200 on a suit that looks pretty good, but lasts only three months before it starts wearing thin. A better bet is to spend more upfront on a suit that will last for years, Anderson said.

“It’s the same thing with IT investment – government can do it on the cheap and be myopic and just buy a solution whether it’s commercial off-the-shelf or not,” Anderson said. “But they’ll be shortchanging themselves and the effectiveness of the technology unless they fully invest in the people.”

With the evolution of technology, it’s no longer just a cybersecurity problem; it encapsulates all of IT. As IT advances, cyber, cloud and other kind of capabilities and components become more integrated and a natural part of an IT person’s role in terms of their knowledge base and skill set, Anderson said.

 “The main message here is for government to get this right – meaning IT investment that improves the security of the nation’s information, government assets and personnel,” she said. “It’s as much about investing in the people as it is about choosing the right technology solutions and making sure it’s implemented effectively. You can’t have one without the other.”

The Veterans Affair Department, for example, has had a agencywide human capital investment initiative of more than $200 million yearly to train their employees, including IT professionals, nurses and strategic planners, to provide them a better skill set, said Anderson, who formerly served as a VA’s acting assistant secretary for policy and planning.

“It’s a line item in VA’s budget, and it’s a significant investment – it’s actually the biggest human capital investment of any federal agency,” she added.

A February 2012 survey by (ISC)2 showed the federal government is doing well with keeping cybersecurity professionals once they are hired. But getting qualified or highly specialized candidates in the door remains a major challenge, Anderson acknowledged.

“Training and development can help retain talent so it remains in the organization for years to come, but managers also need to make sure employees know they have a career path in government or in an IT track,” she explained.

But to even compete with the private sector, government needs to be clear, supportive and helpful about how employees can contribute to the overall mission and how they can advance their careers, Anderson said. 

 “More plans so people understand what’s possible, support from management, training dollars and development opportunities should help in that war of recruiting,” Anderson said.

In times of shrinking coffers, psychological compensation grows increasingly important, Anderson said. Invited to speak to the winners of the U.S. Cyber Challenge – an initiative to identify and recruit the next-generation cybersecurity professionals -- Anderson urged the high school-aged group to consider a career in government over the private sector, as a way to serve the country.

A public service career isn’t “appealing to everyone but there are folks out there who are drawn to opportunities, jobs and careers like that,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the military or the intelligence world, but it could be working in IT security for an agency that manages millions of data records that contain personal information of beneficiaries of government programs.”

In the end, federal managers hold a key role in ensuring the success of their employees.  Anderson advised that managers create for their direct reports individual development plan so each employee’s goals are known and that the organization and the manager are working to support the employee in meeting their goals.

Particularly for young employees with just a few years’ experience, that type of guidance could prove “extraordinary valuable” early in their career, Anderson noted.

“The higher job satisfaction individuals are going to have, the more engaged they will be in their work, the more likely they will be to work in the government,” she said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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