What workers don't know

Agencies are finding that attracting, retaining and training information

technology workers starts with knowing what skills they have — or what they

don't have.

The Small Business Administration is the latest agency to realize that

it must assess the skills of its IT workers. SBA must find out where any

skills gaps exist if its $40 million effort to modernize its systems is

to succeed.

By summer's end, SBA plans to award a contract to conduct a World Wide Web-based

survey to assess the skills of the agency's senior IT executives and IT

staff members, said Lawrence Barrett, SBA's chief information officer.

IT work force planning is a problem at all agencies that are trying

to keep IT workers up-to-date and to keep them from accepting attractive

offers from the private sector, he said.

"We want to make sure seasoned managers know they need to look at IT

capital planning" and other areas that are relatively new to them since

the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996, said Daniel Vellucci, SBA's

director of planning and technology asset management.

Vellucci said he expects to survey about 110 to 115 IT staff members

and additional senior managers. The IT staff assessment will look at skills

in operating systems, software maintenance and other tasks essential to

keep automated systems running. The assessments will be used to direct training

to specific areas, he said.

The survey, which SBA should complete by year's end, will be accessible

via the Internet or delivered to a select group by e-mail.

SBA will be following in the footsteps of other agencies trying to assess

the skills of their IT personnel and tailor training to those workers' needs.

The Treasury Department conducted a similar survey on IT senior management

in November 1998 using an Internet-based form from Dougherty and Associates

Inc. (DAI), a survey firm based in Alexandria, Va. Treasury plans to update

those results with another survey by early 2001, said Fred Thompson, program

manager for IT work force improvement at Treasury. As a measure of success,

Thompson pointed out that the response rate was nearly 80 percent of those

asked to participate.

As a result of the survey, Treasury sent 80 workers to the Defense Department's

Information Resources Management College last year, Thompson said. This

year, he expects to send three times as many people to the DOD school. Treasury

also used the survey results to expand its project management training programs.

DAI used Raosoft Inc.'s EZSurvey software to convert a series of questions — based on the CIO Council's IT core competency requirements and interviews

with Treasury personnel — into a Web-based form, said Sheri Dougherty, president

of the firm. Personnel expected to participate in the survey were sent an

e-mail directing them to the survey Web site. The survey results were collected

in a confidential database and were used to create a final report, Dougherty

said.

Because all agencies are required to improve their IT work force as part

of the Clinger-Cohen Act, Dougherty said she sees an increase in the demand

for Web-based surveys in the federal market.

"The first step is to analyze and assess the competencies of the IT staff:

What do you have, what do you need and where do you stand?" she said.

Following the survey at all of the Treasury bureaus, DAI conducted a

separate, more in-depth analysis at the Internal Revenue Service. Another

analysis was completed at the Department of Health and Human Services, and

Dougherty said her company recently submitted proposals for a similar survey

at NASA and is talking with SBA.

Despite the SBA efforts, Joel Willemssen, the General Accounting Office's

director of civil agencies information systems accounting and information

management division, said in testimony before the Senate Small Business

Committee July 20 that the agency's plans do not go far enough.

"While SBA's planned assessment should be useful, a more comprehensive

program is needed to ensure that it hires, develops and retains the people

it needs to effectively carry out IT activities," Willemssen said.

A recent GAO review of IT management at SBA found that although the

agency is making progress with its modernization, the policies and procedures

needed to support changes in IT investment, architecture, software development,

security and the work force are either nonexistent or still in draft form.

GAO recommended that the SBA administrator:

* Direct the CIO to establish policies and procedures and define and

implement processes to ensure that SBA's IT and knowledge skills requirements

are identified.

* Perform periodic IT staff assessments to identify current knowledge levels.

* Develop work force strategies and implement plans to acquire and maintain

the necessary IT skills to support the agency mission.

* Periodically evaluate the skill level of SBA workers and use the results

to continually improve agency strategies.

SBA's Barrett said he isn't arguing with GAO's recommendations, but

he stressed that, in most areas, SBA is already creating new policies and

contracting with outside firms for services to address the problems.

"Most of the problems we're facing in each of those areas are throughout

the federal government," Barrett said. "After Y2K, we started focusing on

these. But for a year, everything was Y2K."

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