The work force transforms, creating new challenges for federal managers

The federal government's IT work force is moving from short sleeves and pocket protectors to button-down shirts and pocket PCs.

What's happening is nothing short of a transformation in government IT management'the emergence of a new managerial class.

The change is being impelled from the top. White House officials say managers need skills today that have less to do with technology and more to do with acuity in business and the ability to lead teams as government becomes more integrated.

As e-government projects proliferate across government, project managers are most critically in demand.

Indeed, project management isn't just a job function anymore: It's coming into its own as a job title. It may even become a new job classification under the General Schedule.

'We're seeking to make [project management] a class of worker as opposed to a collateral duty,' said Ira Hobbs, deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department and co-chairman of the CIO Council's IT Work Force and Human Capital Committee.

The administration has mandated that agencies have, by September next year, full-time, commercially certified project managers for each IT project worth more than $5 million.

That looks like a tall order. In a GCN Management survey of CIOs and other top-ranking information officials, 65 percent reported critical shortages in project manager positions. With more than 1,200 major IT projects in the works across government, many agencies are scrambling to find employees to groom for project-management certification.

They're also looking at hiring project managers from industry.

The new managerial class faces a raft of complex challenges in other areas.

Managing teleworkers, for example, is a new ball game. How, for instance, do managers monitor the performance of workers whose only presence in the office is electronic?

As the use of managed services and outsourcing grows, managing contractors also has become part of the job for the new class. Handling contract personnel who work alongside agency employees requires a whole new set of management skills, observers say.

Amid such tests, managers still face work force shortages, even though the much-discussed human-capital crisis appears to have eased'at least temporarily.

'The potential for severe shortages across the spectrum of IT competencies looms in the future as the result of an aging workforce, limited recruitment at entry levels and the eventual resurgence of the U.S. economy,' Hobbs warned in a CIO Council report issued earlier this year.
'Today's low turnover rates and plentitude of applicants may be deceptive. The crisis is merely postponed, not averted.'

The present period of relative tranquillity offers a window of opportunity, providing the time to put into place practices that will enable managers not only to prevent chronic skill gaps but also to create the highly skilled work force they need in the future, he said.

'Some folks have put off their retirement,' he added. 'But the retirement numbers still continue to bubble up, and no one knows when the bubble is going to burst. But there are some things we can do make the impact of that bubble bursting less severe.'

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