Federal IT workforce needs training investment, expert says

The search for skilled IT professionals has been an ongoing struggle for the federal government, but there also should be an emphasis on finding ways – and funds -- to train and motivate those already in the workforce, according to one expert.

The framework to build a 21st-century government to better serve citizens pushes agencies to implement digital tools, but missions can't be met successfully without the appropriate investment in development and training for IT professionals, said Julie Anderson, chief operating officer and managing director at Civitas Group

Despite the world of austerity, Anderson said she believes it’s essential to have a portion of the IT budget within the department reserved for training. Imagine you need a new suit and go to a discount store looking for a bargain, Anderson said. You spend $200 on a suit that looks pretty good, but lasts only three months before it starts wearing thin. A better bet is to spend more upfront on a suit that will last for years, Anderson said.

“It’s the same thing with IT investment – government can do it on the cheap and be myopic and just buy a solution whether it’s commercial off-the-shelf or not,” Anderson said. “But they’ll be shortchanging themselves and the effectiveness of the technology unless they fully invest in the people.”

With the evolution of technology, it’s no longer just a cybersecurity problem; it encapsulates all of IT. As IT advances, cyber, cloud and other kind of capabilities and components become more integrated and a natural part of an IT person’s role in terms of their knowledge base and skill set, Anderson said.

 “The main message here is for government to get this right – meaning IT investment that improves the security of the nation’s information, government assets and personnel,” she said. “It’s as much about investing in the people as it is about choosing the right technology solutions and making sure it’s implemented effectively. You can’t have one without the other.”

The Veterans Affair Department, for example, has had a agencywide human capital investment initiative of more than $200 million yearly to train their employees, including IT professionals, nurses and strategic planners, to provide them a better skill set, said Anderson, who formerly served as a VA’s acting assistant secretary for policy and planning.

“It’s a line item in VA’s budget, and it’s a significant investment – it’s actually the biggest human capital investment of any federal agency,” she added.

A February 2012 survey by (ISC)2 showed the federal government is doing well with keeping cybersecurity professionals once they are hired. But getting qualified or highly specialized candidates in the door remains a major challenge, Anderson acknowledged.

“Training and development can help retain talent so it remains in the organization for years to come, but managers also need to make sure employees know they have a career path in government or in an IT track,” she explained.

But to even compete with the private sector, government needs to be clear, supportive and helpful about how employees can contribute to the overall mission and how they can advance their careers, Anderson said. 

 “More plans so people understand what’s possible, support from management, training dollars and development opportunities should help in that war of recruiting,” Anderson said.

In times of shrinking coffers, psychological compensation grows increasingly important, Anderson said. Invited to speak to the winners of the U.S. Cyber Challenge – an initiative to identify and recruit the next-generation cybersecurity professionals -- Anderson urged the high school-aged group to consider a career in government over the private sector, as a way to serve the country.

A public service career isn’t “appealing to everyone but there are folks out there who are drawn to opportunities, jobs and careers like that,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the military or the intelligence world, but it could be working in IT security for an agency that manages millions of data records that contain personal information of beneficiaries of government programs.”

In the end, federal managers hold a key role in ensuring the success of their employees.  Anderson advised that managers create for their direct reports individual development plan so each employee’s goals are known and that the organization and the manager are working to support the employee in meeting their goals.

Particularly for young employees with just a few years’ experience, that type of guidance could prove “extraordinary valuable” early in their career, Anderson noted.

“The higher job satisfaction individuals are going to have, the more engaged they will be in their work, the more likely they will be to work in the government,” she said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Thu, Sep 13, 2012

In the DOC they contracted out most of the training to an online company, learn.com. While the suits are all patting themselves on the back for saving so much money, those of us who are IT professionals are spending our own money buying O'Reilly books to teach ourselves about all the newest technologies. This learn.com company is worse than useless when it comes to technology training. Must be run by somebody's cousin or something.

Thu, Sep 13, 2012 Sam Davis

Good article – we agree that it is crucial to make an investment in training the federal IT workforce. We concur with Ms. Anderson that psychological compensation is extremely important, especially in the current budget environment. Federal managers do indeed hold a key role in ensuring the success of their employees; leadership development training for federal managers is essential to raising employees’ job satisfaction and motivation. This training helps to improve the overall health of organizations, giving them the tools they need to successfully meet their missions.

Sam Davis, VP, AMA Enterprise Government Solutions

Thu, Sep 13, 2012 RayW

I spent 18 years in Real Life, and I think I got about three technical training sessions, all free vendor supplied. In the Gov I get many hours of training, multiple types of Security trainings, Human Trafficking (not that I travel that much), suicide, tool and FOD control (can't leave a loose tool in a PC, might crash a plane somewhere), team building, what the Chinese and others have penetrated, acquisition (whoopee), and before the GSA fiasco I actually was one of the few in my area to go to a training conference the last three years (but that is not allowed now).

I have many hours of training, but I have very little JOB RELATED training, no budget for the useful training. But I think if you check Real Life, most of the GS7-13 (11-14 in DC) technical equivalents get very little useful formal training also, I know I did not. After all, many of the upper management MBA types consider folks like us to be replaceable - with a new kid just out of school with the latest training at entry level pay.

But the downside to the last few paragraphs in the article, train up the newbies in the underpaid Gov system, and they hop to a much better paid Real Life job with that talent.

Thu, Sep 13, 2012

We need to send all those Feds for a week at the country club resort to learn how to day-trade on their government issued iPads. Leave the real work back home to those worthless contractors.

Wed, Sep 12, 2012

REAL training does not mean one-size-fits-all bootcamps. It needs to be a custom fit for the skill sets required for the position. Deep-six the worthless 8570.1 reg, which is no more than a crutch that allows managers to avoid actually knowing what their people are/are not competent to do.

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