Work force woes (Part 2)

Faced with the possibility of losing half of its information technology work force over the next five years, the Treasury Department has issued a new report that calls for the government to overhaul how federal IT professionals are trained, paid and promoted.

The report, "Responding to the Crisis in Information Technology Skills," recommends that the Office of Personnel Management revamp the job descriptions agencies use to determine the responsibilities, salaries and career paths of its technical employees, a project OPM plans to complete this summer.

The current system for classifying IT workers hampers staffing decisions, career development and fair compensation for employees, according to the report.

"Treasury CIOs and their staffs feel hamstrung by the General Schedule classification system," according to the report. Moreover, "There is no clear path for the advancement from the technical ranks to the senior technical ranks, even though we must advance these employees to give them a competitive wage and keep them in our organizations," the report states.

The report also recommends that Treasury devise "realistic, common and predictable career paths" for its technical employees, who sometimes now are assigned ad hoc jobs or promoted to management—even if they would prefer not to be—because those are the only ways managers can reward them for work performed well.

Although the study focuses on Treasury's own IT work force needs, it notes that the department's troubles with its IT work force are not entirely unique from those of other agencies. "There are differences," said Fred Thompson, program manager for IT work force improvement with Treasury, who wrote the report. "I think Treasury's work force may be more stable than some. In other areas, I think we're probably pretty typical."

Thompson said top Treasury officials are paying attention to the report's suggestions, including a proposal that the department boost spending on training. "Spending more money is key," he said. "It looks like that recommendation, like many of the others, is going to be fulfilled."

The report takes the most comprehensive look to date at a civilian department's work force skills and future needs. Over two years, Treasury and its bureaus conducted focus groups, surveys and demographic studies of their IT work force to determine the skills and training needs of their executives and technical managers, as well as future personnel requirements.

Among the study's conclusions:

* Current job classification standards have not kept pace with agencies' need for workers who have the latest technical skills, and the standards limit agencies' ability to pay competitive salaries to senior technical staff.

* Treasury's IT work force of 9,300 is aging. Almost half the staff will be eligible for retirement within five years, including 45 percent of its senior IT managers.

* Although the department loses fewer workers per year than the average private- sector organization, younger Treasury workers leave their jobs at higher rates. The report advises using bonuses, training programs and special career opportunities to attract and retain staff.

* Treasury's 14 bureaus do not budget enough for training. The report suggests increasing the department's training budget from around 1 percent of its IT staff payroll to 3 percent, similar to what some major corporations spend.

Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer for the Agriculture Department and co-chairman of a CIO Council committee on education and training, said other agencies are grappling with the same issues.

The need for training, for example, has changed as technology has advanced rapidly. "Historically, the more experience you had, the more qualified you were for jobs," he said. "Today the technology is such that the window for gaining experience is only one or two years, so [having] folks who are current is more critical than people who have a wealth of experiences in some areas."

The CIO Council is expected to release its own report on federal IT work force needs this week.

Woody Hall, CIO with the Customs Service, said the primary benefit of Treasury's report is that it makes IT work force needs more visible. "Many of these things are easier to do across the board than if each bureau would try to do it themselves," he said. "It's not just Woody Hall saying, 'I need to do something about broadening the experience of my mid-level managers.' It's more than me trying to defend a 1 percent training budget."

Thompson said each bureau will have to make its own decisions about what to cut to fund new programs. "Our judgment was to identify the minimal acceptable level everyone could work with," he said. Some recommendations require action from OPM or Congress.

Treasury sent a letter to OPM requesting the regulatory and statutory changes. An OPM official who asked for anonymity said the agency plans to address several of Treasury's proposals in its current job classification study and in an upcoming legislative package. The official did not know when it would be sent to Congress.

Olga Grkavac, senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America, said the study appears to reflect what industry executives are experiencing in their companies. "It's always of value to have it confirmed by a study," she said. What would be significant, she said, is if Treasury commits the money to back its recommendations, especially for training.

Thompson said a plan to carry out the report's recommendations is due in mid-June.

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