Work force woes (Part 1)

In an effort to give agencies more flexibility in hiring and paying information technology employees, the Office of Personnel Management this summer plans to revamp the way the government structures its technical work force to more closely resemble the private sector.

OPM plans to create a set of specific job titles to cover different types of positions, such as database administrators, computer security specialists and Webmasters, according to OPM officials who requested anonymity. Salaries for those positions could be matched to each job, rather than to a generic set of responsibilities, as they are now.

The policy, along with planned revisions to the qualification requirements for government IT jobs, could help agencies better compete with the private sector for employees. "You spend a year in grade understanding how to be a Webmaster, and the government pay [scale] may move you 3, 4, 5 percent," said Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer with the Agriculture Department and co-chairman of the CIO Council's Education and Training Committee. "In industry, you may be worth a least two times as much."

But these measures are only part of the solution to the government's IT personnel needs. Recommendations in a CIO Council report on the federal IT work force, expected this week, "go further than the OPM piece," Hobbs said. "We think we need to look very broadly as a council in how we plan for training, recruitment and retention of the next generation of IT professionals."

Ray Sumser, a senior consultant to the National Academy of Public Administration, said job description changes would have limited impact unless they were accompanied by a more flexible pay scale. He said the current General Schedule, with its regulated grades and step levels, should be replaced with a few broad salary ranges—a practice called "broad banding" that many federal IT executives also endorse.

Although OPM says it is working on legislation to institute broad banding, officials do not know when they will introduce it. "There's nothing on the horizon that suggests there will be an immediate change," Sumser said.

Meanwhile, Don Arnold, national account manager for desktop outsourcing with Wang Government Services and chairman of the Industry Advisory Council's Year 2000 task force, said that although reclassifying jobs "may help [the] economics of employment," revamping job descriptions would be "sort of a Band-Aid over a spurting artery."

Arnold thinks agencies always will have trouble luring technical workers from the private sector because companies offer employees more flexibility. Agencies that decide not to outsource their technical positions will need to "create a culture that is attractive or supportive to these technologists in the form of positive role models," he said. Younger workers are more likely to sign up for federal service "if they can work with [people] who are acknowledged leaders in their technology fields," Arnold said.

Most IT workers hold jobs in one of four occupational series: computer specialist, telecommunications, computer engineering or computer science. The qualifications for these jobs do not specify any particular technical skills, for example, knowledge of databases or experience managing local-area networks.

That hurts recruitment, said Ted Gonter, senior information resources management consultant with SRA Federal Systems, which helped to research and compile the upcoming CIO Council work force report. "When I compare the job series the government has [with] the want ads in the papers, I always see ads that look for Oracle programmers or Web developers [in the papers]," he said. "If there were more specific definitions, it would be clear these [government jobs] were the same kind of jobs the commercial world is looking for." Furthermore, experienced technical workers often have to take on management duties—which they may not want or even be qualified for—if they want to earn higher salaries. A report released this month by the Treasury Department concluded this system impedes staffing decisions and offers "no clear path" for skilled technical workers to advance in their careers.

Alan Balutis, deputy CIO with the Commerce Department, said the problem is most acute with midlevel positions at the GS-11 to GS-13 salary levels. "That journeyman level is key, and that's where we have a lot of knowledge and expertise I don't think we can afford to lose."

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