GAO, OPM:  IT skills gap remains a critical concern

Despite efforts to close the skills gap in IT and cybersecurity within the federal government, the two areas remain in the Government Accountability Office’s crosshairs as in need of more attention.

In a Sept. 19 hearing before a Senate subcommittee, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, and Gene Dodaro, U.S. comptroller general and head of GAO, addressed the dearth of qualified IT professionals and the challenges in bridging the skills gap.

GAO in 2001 designated strategic human capital management a high-risk area across the federal government because of lack of leadership and attention, Dodaro told Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.

The hearing was Akaka’s last before retiring after a 36-year tenure in Congress.

Since 2001, Congress has passed several bills to help agencies address human capital management issues. In additional to establishing chief human capital officers in each agency, the enactment of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 granted more flexibility for the workforce and helped managers handle various human capital challenges. 

However, one of the reasons human capital remains on the high-risk list is the lack of critical skills in areas including cybersecurity, the acquisition workforce and foreign-language capabilities, Dodaro said.

The matter becomes even more urgent considering that 30 percent of employees will be eligible to retire between now and 2016, he said. In certain agencies, such as Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration, that number reaches 40 percent. Moreover, among the Senior Executive Service and career leadership, 58 percent are eligible to retire over the same time span.

“This is a huge challenge, with already-existing skill gaps,” Dodaro said.

To deal with the impediments, it’s important for the executive branch to provide good leadership and for Congress to provide oversight and attention, he said. 
In response to questioning, Dodaro said the  Chief Human Capital Officers Council and Congress would do well to address effective planning and finding the root causes of skill gaps and fixing them.

There also needs to be solid plans for retaining and recruiting talent, which means getting OPM involved in helping agencies use effective hiring flexibilities in areas such as special pay rates, Dodaro noted.

“Thirdly, there needs to be follow-up … this needs to be a continuous process,” he added

In discussing how OPM officials are assisting agencies address mission-critical skill gaps, Berry said the Chief Human Capital Officers Council identified five occupations and three competencies that face strategic challenges.

IT, human resources and acquisition professionals, as well as program auditors and economists are professions that regularly have a hard time recruiting, Berry said. In addition to these areas, gaps lie in strategic thinking, problem solving and data analysis. Each agency also has its own unique challenges depending on its mission and workforce; for example, the Agriculture Department finds it difficult to recruit enough veterinarians.

“We can’t expect these skills to just come to us,” Berry said, “so we’re going to universities to see if we can work with them to help make sure that the graduates they put out have these three key elements.”

Each agency has been charged with creating a work plan to address the deficiencies, and address ways for improvement, retention and continuing development, Berry said, stressing how IT and cybersecurity particularly require up-to-date skills. 

“As you, Mr. Chairman, and Sen. [Ronald] Johnson know, the bad guys are changing their game and we need to change with them – we need to always be at the top of our game in that sense from the federal government’s perspective,” Berry said.

About the Author

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


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