People Skills

Wendy Rayner knows firsthand what happens to states that let the technology skills of their employees languish. Ultimately, states that scrimp on technology training find that many of their workers just don't have the skills to do their jobs.

"We haven't kept up with bringing the skills along," said Rayner, chief information officer of New Jersey, which conducted a massive employee skills assessment last year in an effort to play catch-up. "My premise is that it is management's responsibility to give the staff the tools to do their jobs, the technical knowledge they need [and] the training necessary to stay current. We haven't done that. We expect them to do it on their own. They can't do it, and it's not fair."

Elizabeth Boatman agrees. When she started her job as Chicago's first CIO two years ago, she had a budget of only $36,000 to train about 170 people.

"I couldn't keep them trained," Boatman said. "We hadn't been investing in training. Instead, they were learning on the job, which didn't make us very effective in solving our customers' problems." The city decided to outsource its data center, and its training requirement went with it-a sure way to minimize the problem in an era of tight budgets and stiff competition for skilled workers. "It just seemed like a natural fit because the funding issues were so great in local government," Boatman said.

Boatman's experience is not unusual. Because salaries for technical employees have risen so fast in recent years, state and local governments have largely stopped competing with private companies for employees with technical skills. That leaves agencies with only a few options: outsource IT operations entirely or launch programs to improve the technical skills of existing staff.

The good news, however, is that managers looking to bolster the skills of employees already on board have an arsenal of electronic training tools available to them. Increasingly, those managers also stand a better chance of finding some relief from neighboring jurisdictions because many state and local governments are starting to realize the value of banding together to meet training challenges.

Of course, technical staff training is only the beginning. As soon as the ink is dry on a new contract for an agency client/server system or software upgrade, the learning curve can change dramatically for hundreds and even thousands of rank-and-file state and local staff members, from prison guards to social workers to secretaries. "We see an update every six to 18 months," said George White, director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Desktop Technology. "We have to constantly keep people's skills updated. That has driven a lot of the demand."

Pennsylvania, for example, said it would retrain 500 technical employees who were displaced when the state decided to privatize its data centers. Hundreds of others will have to be trained as the state completes a deal with Microsoft Corp. to standardize every desktop in 40 agencies on the most recent version of Windows 2000, Office 2000 and Microsoft Exchange Network.

For smaller, local governments, the training crunch can be even more harsh, considering they are usually the most strapped for technically skilled workers. "We're pretty much out there on our own," said Mike Zimmerman, CIO of Minnesota's Hennepin County. The county, without help from the state, has budgeted $600,000 for an in-house training team and reinforced that effort with a computer-based training initiative for its 9,000-strong work force.

Added New Jersey's Rayner: "We have to understand the current situation, where we are today, and then see where the gap is. We'll then train the staff on what they need."

Indeed, the training gap seems to be broadening, especially when factoring in the needs of local governments. "We have 120 counties and 435 cities," said Ron Bingham, project manager of Empower Kentucky, which was started in 1996 to reduce the costs and increase efficiency in state government. "What happens when they get online? Just think how dramatically [state government] needs are going to increase."

Kentucky, which dedicates about 25 percent of a $173 million technology trust fund to training, is in the second phase of a pilot project to provide "virtual office" tools to state social workers. The workers are outfitted with laptops, printers, cellular phones and beepers so that they can go directly to clients' homes. The result has been a 50 percent to 60 percent gain in the number of clients served-a "remarkable change in efficiency," Bingham said, but one that will depend on an increased training commitment.

While essential, training can be a double-edged sword for government managers. While it might entice people to stay on the job, training also gives them skills that make them more attractive, and attracted, to higher-paying, private-sector jobs. Chicago, for example, quickly lost 75 percent of the city's IT staff newly trained on Oracle databases last year.

"We worry how long they are going to stay," Bingham said. "They love the training, and then they leave and go work for the private sector to make more money. I can't tell you how competitive it is. We are trying to reinvest in the folks we have on board. But it's a big investment in time and dollars."

Electronic Training Options

Each state, county and city appears to be tackling the training challenge in its own way. Although traditional, instructor-led classroom training continues to be a primary teaching option, self-led instruction using packaged software programs-computer-based training-also is common. However, many agency managers agree the future appears to be in intranet- or World Wide Web-based training.

Pennsylvania turned to Web-based training when it vowed to find jobs for workers affected by its $410 million data center outsourcing project.

"We were faced with, How do we train a large number of people in diverse topic areas in a short time frame and do that in a cost-effective manner?" Pennsylvania's White said. To carry out the training, state IT planners decided to try a Web-based program to deliver 185 course titles over the state's intranet system. The total tab was $100,000, and White claims that after a year, the results of the program have been positive.

"We don't have to send employees offsite," White said. "There are no travel costs. They are not away from their families or jobs. And they are free to take the course when they choose." A feature of computer-based training that White particularly likes is skill assessment-a weak link in many training programs. A pre-test pinpoints what workers already know so that instruction can be more focused. A post-test determines whether workers have mastered the new material.

Pennsylvania's provider of training materials was CBT Systems, which offers more than 750 interactive education software titles, in client/server, mainframe, Internet and intranet technologies. Two years ago, the California-based company started to focus its marketing efforts toward state and local government, said Tom Kahl, CBT Systems' director of government sales. "We see it as a huge growth opportunity," he said. "We see it as a good way to solve problems at the state and local level." In addition to Pennsylvania, CBT Systems is working in Texas, California, Virginia and Florida.

Washington state also is using its intranet for technology training and has CD-ROM courses for those who are not yet connected. The state made more than 100 courses available via intranet almost two years ago, ranging from very technical subjects to desktop applications. As of November, enrollment was about 1,800 people. Cost to the department is about $67 per course. "We think it is in our interest to have as skilled a work force as possible," said Steve Kolodney, director of Washington's Department of Information Services. "It is driven by an absolute need to be effective in these projects."

The company providing Washington's intranet courses is Illinois-based NETg, or National Education Training Group. Training by Internet or intranet is the emerging technology, said Bill Bonner, NETg's manager of customer relations and communications. "The market right now is grappling with how to move to that and how to integrate that into training environments," he said. "That is the hot area right now."

The Intergovernmental Advantage

In addition to investing in computer-based training, some state and local jurisdictions are trying to pool their resources to extend the value of their training dollars. Once New Jersey's Rayner identified the lack of technical training as a problem, she soon noticed the absence of cooperation between state, county and city government agencies on training. "My whole approach is that we need to do this together. We need to leverage," Rayner said. "I am very anxious to work with [local governments]. The cities have the same issues we do."

Even in states that strive to maintain active training programs, few are set up to work with the staff of local governments. Pennsylvania, for instance, must continually retrain its staff, but the state doesn't share training resources with its neighbors. "It doesn't trickle down at all to the local level," White said.

Some states are getting wise to the need to collaborate. California, for example, is designing a training program that will be available to all public-sector workers in the state, including employees of cities, counties, public utilities, schools and special districts, according to Deborah Furlow, general manger of customer accounts in the Training and Continuous Improvement Division of California's Department of Personnel Administration. TCID is charged with providing quality training and creating accessible training sources.

California, like many state and local governments, is finding that combining resources is especially productive when coupled with Web-based initiatives. The state has been offering its training by instructor, but this year it also will be available through the Internet.

Last year, about 20 percent of the 9,000 people who took classes at the Learning Institute, which is run by TCID and offers training in PC applications, were from local government. For high-end training, the state's Health and Welfare Data Center, which specializes in mainframe-level skills, trained more than 4,500 students, 5 percent of whom were from local government.

For more than a year, the Learning Institute also has offered instructor-led courses through a contract with CompUSA at 29 sites in California so that employees don't have to go to Sacramento for classes. Contra Costa County's 3,000 county employees can get their IT training at the local CompUSA, saving the county more than $300,000 a year on its training bill, Furlow said.

But while computer and Internet training is seen as helpful, most see it as a supplemental method. "There's a lot of talk in the training community about moving to computer-based training or Web-based training, " Furlow said. "While those are all well and good, I don't think they will ever replace instructor-led training. Doing Web-based or computer-based training requires a higher level of personal commitment. You are kind of on your own to do that type training."

The intent for TCID, Furlow said, is to offer courses in several ways, on the Internet, by CD-ROM, by instructor-whatever fills a student's needs. "People learn differently," she said. "It is our intent to provide many different ways to deliver training. No matter how best a student learns, we are still a resource."

Mississippi also is looking to increase the mix of instruction and plans to add Web-based training in the future. "It will not replace what we're doing, but it will be a supplement. It could be a prerequisite," said Karen Newman, education services division director with the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services, which trains about 2,000 state employees a year with instructor-led classes and software programs.

Washington also is leveraging training resources. The state's Department of Information Services provides training services to state agencies, similar to the way it acts as a provider of other services, such as telecommunications. "Training is something we think we need to do for our customers," Kolodney said. "We think it is in our interest to have as skilled a work force as possible."

When it comes to technical training, Kolodney thinks of the immediate needs of state workers and also considers the future needs of state residents. For two years, the state has been building a network to connect all educational institutions from kindergarten through the University of Washington. DIS hopes to harness the network to reinforce the technical prowess of its citizens as well as its public workers. "We think [the K-20 network] has huge potential for training not just state and local government but communities," Kolodney said. "We are hoping the schoolhouse will become the focus of community activity and be available for all kinds of training.

"We live in such fast-paced times with these technologies," he added. "Training will have to be easy to get."

-- Louisa Shepard is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at LouisaShep@aol.com.

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