Facing worker shortage, VBA turns to IT tools

Facing worker shortage, VBA turns to IT tools

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The Veterans Benefits Administration is expecting a mass staff exodus in three years, just as its workload is likely to increase, placing a heavy load on the systems staff.

Training is the key to surviving the loss of skilled workers and institutional knowledge, officials at the Veterans Affairs Department agency said.

About 4,800 members of VBA's 12,000-member work force, including 196 information technology workers, will qualify for retirement in the next three years, said George Wolohojian, the agency's director of employee development and training.

Typically, 25 percent of those qualifying for retirement opt to take advantage of the opportunity, meaning the agency could find itself with at least 3,000 vacant jobs, he said.

The problem affects the entire agency. Though part of the IT work force loss will be mitigated by a move to updated systems, VBA chief information officer Adair Martinez said the losses would still be trying. The staff shortage will likely occur during a time when the IT shop will be trying to help users switch to new systems, she said.

Wolohojian said that even if the agency immediately hired replacements for each retiree, managers would still need to determine the knowledge and skills of those leaving and of the new hires.

To help, VBA has begun trying to boost training now. For instance, the Buffalo, N.Y., regional office, which processes claims for education benefits, recently began a pilot of online training programs from Saba Software Inc. of Redwood Shores, Calif., Wolohojian said.

First test

If the 100-member staff finds the Saba tools useful, VBA's CIO Office next month will try it, followed by the housing program, the vocational rehabilitation units and finally, around January, the Compensation and Pension Services Department, he said.

The compensation and pension staff has already been criticized by oversight officials for not processing compensation claims quickly enough.

'We are losing skills and bringing on people who have to spend time learning to do the job,' Wolohojian said. 'Is it any surprise there are cases piling up?' Although original compensation claims are taking longer to be completed, the agency has to revisit and rework them less frequently, he said.

'They are doing the work right the first time,' he said.

Bob Epley, director of compensation and pension services, said his group has tried over the past year to build a comprehensive training process using a custom online module. Its use prevents having to divert employees from customer service for one-on-one training, he said.

The agency bought 9.1G hard drives to house the Training Performance and Support System, a training program developed for VBA by Interactive Media Corp. of Orlando, Fla. The system runs on Compaq ProLiant 3000 and 6000 series servers running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and a Corel Paradox 7.0 database. The compensation and pension staff can access the training programs from their networked PCs.

The agency rolled out that program last year and expects to issue supplemental modules next month, Epley said.

When the Saba rollout reaches the compensation and pension group, it will incorporate the training performance system already in use, Wolohojian said.

Epley said that by this summer, he wants to recruit 300 new compensation and pension employees who would attend a series of orientation classes so the agency could stay ahead of the retirement trend.

Meanwhile, even though the IT department is losing a major chunk of its experienced staff, it must develop training on the use of all new applications and systems, including the planned implementation of electronic veterans claims folders, and move legacy payment data to an agencywide database, Martinez said.

Martinez's staff may shrink due to attrition as it loses Cobol programmers no longer needed after the shift to new systems. Those losses, however, also bring the loss of institutional knowledge at a time when the CIO Office's workload will likely increase, Martinez said. Her group supports training systems and helps implement the computer-based modules used to help current staff members and new hires upgrade their skills.

During the crunch period, the IT shop's role will be key because it must support both the agency's new systems and its new computer training efforts, said Matt Mangan, an executive assistant in VA's Office of the Undersecretary for Benefits.

But Epley said that until the new systems are running, new hires will likely be flabbergasted by VBA's antiquated systems, especially a Jupiter DPS 9000/732 mainframe from Bull HN Information Systems Inc. of Billerica, Mass.

'The systems that we use today are old,' he said. 'Those systems are rigid, created at a time when we used dumb terminals to process [on] mainframes.'

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