Agencies could pay for skimping on training

Employers and employees get burned when training dollars are scarce, FCW readers say.

You know how annoying it is when you're working on your PC and it automatically downloads a software patch and goes into reboot mode? Many federal employees wish they could update their IT skills that easily.

Judging by what Federal Computer Week readers say, many managers are not making an effort to help their employees keep their knowledge current. And these days, someone can go from cutting-edge to out-of-date in three or four years’ time, much to the detriment of the individual and the employer. It’s like an Xbox one day turning into an Atari.

No one is certain why agency officials let this happen. Is it that they don’t understand the rapid rate at which technology changes? Or is that they don’t perceive the need to keep up? Or maybe they like the Atari.

Whatever the case may be, feds are frustrated by the various ways the lack of training makes their jobs more difficult.

“Training? What's training?” one reader wrote. “Is that reading the manuals on my nights and weekends off? Or is it those off-site retreats that upper management goes to every couple of months so they can tell us how unmotivated we are?”

Even readers who are lucky enough to get training can suffer the consequences of their agencies’ parsimonious approach.

For example, one reader said, imagine an IT team getting together to brainstorm about the possibility of a new cloud computing application. But if it’s a typical agency, only a few of the participants have had any training on the topic. That’s a problem because “when you have no knowledge of what they are talking about, you cannot have a good brainstorming session,” the reader said.

Here is a sampling of the comments readers have posted on training-related articles at FCW.com. Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.

A budget squeeze?

In many cases, the lack of training appears to stem from budget problems. But appearances can be deceiving.

Based on reader comments, it might be more accurate to say that organizations are quick to cut money for training because they do not see it as a priority, and legitimate budget constraints give them good cover.

As one reader observed, training “is the first thing to be cut during budget issues.”

Unfortunately, once training programs get sucked into budget games, they are difficult to extract. And the IT department is often a victim because technology training can be so expensive.

“You do the math,” one reader said. “Train three nontechie people or one tech person for the same amount of money?”

Even if the training budget has some money, an employee’s options are often limited. For example, off-site training is off limits if there is no travel money, Guillermo observed.

Often the only realistic option is online training. To an outside observer — and apparently to managers — that seems like an ideal solution because online classes are often less expensive than traditional training and do not involve any travel.

However, although some online classes might be more than satisfactory, many are not, especially those at the low end of the price range. They might be better than nothing, as Guillermo said, but that’s not a high standard.

In one case, agency officials signed up their employees for an online training subscription “and patted themselves on the back because it only cost them about 33 cents a day per employee,” a reader reported. “Care to guess about the quality of this training?”

But that reader should feel lucky.

“I have not been in a paid training class in years,” another fed commented. Instead, “I am told to do online training that is free. You get what you pay for.”

Lapses in leadership

Many readers have concluded that the lack of training is, at heart, a leadership problem.

Some managers either don’t understand or, even worse, don’t care about the connection between employee training, morale and job performance. Employees whose agencies don’t support training eventually find themselves lacking the knowledge they need to do their jobs well.

Of course, most managers would never say they don’t care about training, but their priorities are evident in numerous ways.

For example, wrote a reader identified as WFA, an agency might fund IT training but then won’t provide a low-risk nonproduction system that employees can use to practice what they learned. “So training ends up being a waste of effort, [which] is very frustrating for the employees who want to improve the security and efficiency of the systems they manage,” WFA wrote.

According to another reader, some managers use scarce training dollars as a way to reward their favorite workers. As a result, wrote a reader identified as the Observer, “hardworking, sincere employees who would rather not play the game have to scratch and claw their way to training.”

A slightly less sinister theory supposes that managers who don’t trust their employees are less likely to support training. A manager might have been to a class in which some people were goofing off, which does happen, wrote a reader who signed himself as “a guy.” “Like the manager who goes to a conference for a week, rents a car, spends one day at the conference, and takes off on a ‘vacation’ for the rest of the week,” the reader wrote. “He does it, so his people must, too, right?”

The motives of many managers are probably less suspect if no less frustrating. One reader reported being denied training year after year because there was no money in the budget. But then at the end of the fiscal year, the managers would scramble to use up their excess money rather than lose it.

“I could have an inch larger computer screen, but I wasn’t allowed to upgrade my skills,” the reader wrote.

There is a happy ending of sorts: The reader transferred to another agency, taking a big pay cut but finally getting access to some training.

Don’t wait for an invite

Not everyone is willing to trade salary for training, but the most talented employees tend to take matters into their own hands, one way or another.

One commenter, a contractor, got a rise from other readers by suggesting that most feds lack the get-up-and-go to seek the training they need. The contractor offered this thought exercise: “Let’s say a federal agency made two strong hires in 2001. Sitting side by side, one struggles to do a good job, while the other surfs the Net and works crossword puzzles. They both get their step and grade increases on a regular basis and are both paid the same amount. Where is the motivation for them? There is more motivation for the one to stop trying.”

Not so fast, a fed replied. That scenario assumes that money is always the primary motivator, but the facts suggest otherwise.

“There are some [like that], but most of us are intrinsically motivated,” the fed wrote. “Otherwise, we’d be making the big bucks [at] somebody like Microsoft or Cisco.”

That’s not to say that the self-motivated employees are altruistic types concerned only about the good of their agencies. They also tend to give ample consideration to their own career paths.

“To remain a ‘top talent,’ an IT worker has to constantly be upgrading her skills,” Steve wrote. “My experience is that the government does little to help its IT workers maintain top-notch current and relevant skills. Top talent does not want their skills to atrophy, so they are far more inclined to work for an employer that encourages and assists in keeping skills current.”

And the more self-motivated they are, the better off employees will be because they won't be waiting to win kudos from their employers. “When the initiative is taken and training is successfully completed at personal expense, there is no compensation, recognition or form of acknowledgment of their effort,” one reader wrote from — we’re guessing — his or her own experience.

That is not true of all agencies. A reader identified as MGS had no trouble getting money for training while working as a manager at the Agriculture Department. Unfortunately, after returning to government after a couple of years in the private sector, MGS landed at an agency with a less enlightened view.

“My recommendation is that if you are at such an agency and you are interested in training and technology, get out and find a different agency or take a private-sector job.” MGS advised. “The only other option to progress is to take advantage of tuition assistance if it is available.”

Here come the contractors

Unfortunately, even the most motivated employees might find themselves squeezed out of meaningful technology work by government contractors.

In some cases, agency leaders who neglect their employees’ professional development often wake up one day to discover that their employees lack the skills to perform the work at hand. The managers' only choice is to hire contractors, whose employers have a vested interest in keeping their skills current.

In other cases, that’s the strategy from the start, some readers believe.

“It is easier to hire/fire a contractor and then claim credit for taking quick action to solve the problem du jour,” one reader wrote.

It is also convenient for managers who don’t know how to hire competent technology professionals and who like having someone who is easy to blame and fire when things go wrong, another reader said.

As far as some feds are concerned, it’s just as well they don't have access to training because they can’t afford to leave the office for any stretch of time.

“Oh, man, don't depress me,” WOR wrote. “Training? I can barely take vacation and have to listen to all the whining that the department will have no IT support for X number of days. And [last year it was], ‘Do more with less,’ and [this year], ‘Do more with less,’ and....”

NEXT STORY: Minnesota lawmakers strike a deal

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