Agencies search for new project managers

The federal government could soon be hanging out a help-wanted sign for project managers.

If agencies cannot identify and train enough people in-house to step forward as experienced project managers for hundreds of information technology projects, the government may need to go on a hiring spree this summer, said Mark Forman, the Office of Management and Budget's associate director for IT and e-government.

Agencies are in dire need of experienced managers to lead IT projects, he said. More than 700 projects were placed on OMB's "at-risk" list in the fiscal 2004 budget and may have their funding withheld. Several hundred are on the list specifically because of a lack of good project managers.

Agencies are rushing to identify and train more managers, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is spending significant funding on training, Forman said.

The VA created requirements for a variety of skills necessary to effectively manage IT projects, said John Gauss, the VA's chief information officer. "We are using many well-established courses and are spending some money on courses unique to the project management oversight process we have implemented in [the] VA," he said.

Gauss said the agency is finalizing the effort's qualification/certification section, which will help "ensure folks have met the requirements and that they will be capable of doing the job with a high probability of success."

During the past year, agency officials have really begun to realize "that they need to develop that in-house capability rather than depend on external contractors," said Al Ressler, director of the Center for Human Resources Management at the National Academy of Public Administration. Until last month, Ressler served as assistant director of the Office of Human Resources and Statistics for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

But efforts such as those at the VA may not be enough. Finding new recruits may be necessary "if we literally don't have the people we need in-house," Forman said March 20 at a forum sponsored by webMethods Inc. on technology and counterterrorism.

Agencies should do everything they can to identify people in-house before considering other options, especially because fewer people seem to be leaving for the private sector with the economy as unsteady as it is, Ressler said. "There are enough of them with adequate skills to be trained to meet those needs," he said.

Should it come down to the wire, however, the economy will likely make it easy for agencies to find project managers from the private sector looking for stable work, he said.

Forman already has taken a good first step by starting to think now about a possible hiring campaign because a governmentwide effort will require time and planning, said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service.

"Hiring and a recruitment campaign is not something you turn off and on like a spigot," he said.

Right now, the federal government seems to offer many advantages to people working in IT.

"My interest in project management positions in government stems from a combination of wanting a change — I have been with my company for 20 years — and seeing funding start to dry up for future projects," said one private-sector manager who asked not to be named. "This may or may not be true, but it seems to me that working for the government now might provide safer options than working in industry."

Judi Hasson contributed to this article.

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Project manager headway

The Department of Veterans Affairs has developed requirements for three levels of project management:

Level I — Requires some training and some experience and is aimed at people working in a project management office and those just entering the field of project management.

Level II — Requires more training and experience than Level I and is aimed at people who will manage small to moderate-size projects.

Level III — Requires a lot more experience and training than Level II and is aimed at people who will manage large, high-cost, complex information technology projects or IT projects that are very high in visibility.

This year, the VA wants to qualify and certify all IT proj-ect managers working on major acquisitions as Level III. "And we want to start building our cadre of IT project managers for the future," said John Gauss, the VA's chief information officer. "We have funded and scheduled the training necessary to achieve these objectives."

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