Training would put needy to work

Mitretek Systems of McLean Va. is crafting a special training program that may allow federal agencies to simultaneously tackle two vexing problems - updating their computer systems so they function in the Year 2000 and providing jobs for welfare recipients.

Mitretek and Virginia Tech's Northern Virginia Graduate Center are developing a curriculum that would train welfare recipients to be computer programmers so they could be hired by vendors to work on Year 2000 system upgrades for government and private-sector customers. Industry analysts estimate that in the federal market alone contractors and agencies will need to dedicate more than 100 000 employees to the task although it's hard to predict exactly how many workers ultimately will be required.

Supporters of the project called TekAid argue that using newly trained workers could help vendors and their customers reduce labor costs which may amount to one-third of federal spending on system upgrades. Peter de Jager a consultant on Year 2000 issues said workers with "six to nine months' worth of training" could be employed to analyze the output of automated tools at salaries far lower than the $80 000 commanded by Cobol programmers.

But Washington D.C.-area vendors are skeptical about whether such workers most of whom would have no college training are the best ones to hire for such high-profile contracts. So far the project has attracted official support from only one company: Fairfax Va.-based DynCorp.

"If you're qualified in the language and experience it's not an especially difficult technical problem to correct software " said Jim Kerrigan president of Colmar Corp. a Reston Va. market research company. "But if you're coming at it from ground zero there's so much you have to learn before you look at a page of code to understand what it's doing that I think it would take too long."

"The concept is a very commendable one " said Nancy Peters vice president of business development with CACI Inc. Arlington Va. "[But] one of the issues we all worry about is the liability. And one of the ways you help assure yourself you're capable of doing the job is that you have people who are well-trained and have experience."

Tom Neff TekAid program manager with Mitretek said this training strategy has not been tried before but is similar to how programmers learned their trade during the early days of the computer industry. Back then most programmers learned on the job he said.

According to Richard Paritzky an assistant professor at Virginia Tech trainees could be taught basic programming skills and related expertise needed for Year 2000-related jobs within a semester although designing the right curriculum is proving to be a challenge. He said TekAid also wants to educate workers so they could pursue careers as programmers when their first jobs are completed.

Patricia Bennis vice president with DynCorp Information and Engineering Technology discussed TekAid at a public meeting of the Chief Information Officers Council last month. She said the project will benefit the government only if agencies relax some of their contract requirements for vendor personnel.

Alan Balutis deputy CIO with the Commerce Department and head of the council's outreach subcommittee said the government might want to look at how the project could help agencies with the Year 2000 labor shortage. But he said he had not heard anything about the idea before the Feb. 18 meeting.

In recent speeches President Clinton has urged companies to hire welfare recipients to carry out provisions of a law that requires beneficiaries to get jobs.

Neff said Mitretek is seeking support for the project from Virginia which like many states offers grants to groups that want to help employ welfare beneficiaries. He said he also is pursuing backing from the District of Columbia Maryland and several other states but does not yet know how much the project will cost.

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