A work force at risk

Trouble attracting information technology workers while a large part of

the federal work force nears retirement has raised concerns about the government's

future work force.

If the government fails to fill vacancies and retain workers, its "human

capital systems" could earn the General Accounting Office's high-risk designation

in 2001, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker warned during a Senate subcommittee

hearing March 9.

While agencies battle the private sector for talent, "the federal work force

is no longer the army of clerks we deployed 50 years ago," said Janice Lachance,

director of the Office of Personnel Management, testifying before the Senate

Governmental Affairs Committee's Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring

and the District of Columbia Subcommittee. "Now, policy and program officials

need commando squads of information technology professionals with cutting-edge

skills."

The president's 2001 budget request urges Congress to use early retirement

authority to shape the work force to the needs of federal agencies, Lachance

said.

Concerns are emerging about the aging federal work force, the rise in

retirement eligibility and the actions needed to ensure effective succession

planning, Walker said. Processes, technology and people are key to success,

he said, cautioning that agencies typically overlook the people dimension.

"People will be the key to obtaining and maintaining competitive advantage

in any enterprise," Walker said.

Agencies that require workers with the most advanced degrees are at

the largest disadvantage, Walker said, noting the generous salaries and

benefits offered by firms in the private sector. He urged Congress to consider

adopting an incentive strategy for civilian agencies similar to that used

by the Defense Department to pay off student loans in return for public

service.

In addition, government downsizing in the past decade has left skills gaps,

Walker said. Agencies such as NASA, GAO and the Social Security Administration

have major problems right below the surface, particularly with succession

planning, he said. The first step is self-assessment, Walker said. To help,

GAO offers a checklist that can be used to assess an agency's work force

needs.

OPM also is designing a system that will enable agencies to assess candidates

against a broad range of job competencies, Lachance said. "The shift from

narrow job standards to broad competencies will help agencies select employees

who can grow and adapt as work requirements shift and jobs are redesigned,"

Lachance said in written testimony.

In addition, OPM is developing a work force succession model that enables

agencies to compare their situations with other agencies and industry. The

model lets agencies identify what skills are in the educational pipeline

that will feed them new workers, Lachance said, adding that the model should

be ready before the new presidential administration takes office. One focus

is on the Senior Executive Service and training for potential leaders, she

said.

Two NASA reports released last week underscore the importance of managing

people and the need to attract and train highly skilled workers. The reports

examined program management following the failures of Mars exploration missions

and criticism of the agency's "faster, better, cheaper" approach.

The "NASA Faster, Better, Cheaper Task Final Report" recommends that the

space agency place a higher priority on people acquisition, motivation and

training. It encourages NASA to develop incentives for attracting good people

and well-respected leaders to work for NASA and to continue symposiums on

lessons learned, re-engineering, information technology, cultural change

and teaming.

Incentives are key, as high salaries and stock options outside government

lure IT managers and chief information officers to private industry.

"I don't know how you respond to your leaders leaving," said Rich Kellett,

head of the General Service Administration's Emerging Information Technologies

Policies Division. "The market's so competitive. We can't stand to lose

them."

Kellett suggested that the hiring focus should be on employees' willingness

to change and network with others rather than on specific software skills.

With new product development cycles for the Internet as short as three months,

"What's really important is the flexibility and adaptability of the person,"

he said.

Federal agencies also must deal with human capital as a total agency issue,

Kellett said. The government must define its business organization and focus

on what it does well and what it should outsource, he said.

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