An Ever Widening Skills Gap

The author says that necessary training for human resources employees is not taking place, thus hampering the ability to hire and retain outstanding new employees for the federal workforce.

Call Hospice, the patient is in Stage 4 and is not expected to survive. The patient is federal human resources where the necessary investment in training for new and existing employees is not taking place, and the ability to hire and retain excellent new employees is being severely hampered as the federal workforce is being used as a political hostage and sound byte by those who failed leadership and compromise years ago.

This situation will become exponentially worse when the economy gains strength and public service becomes far less attractive, particularly after salary and benefits are gutted on the sacrificial altar.

What happened to private sector benefits is now occurring to the federal workforce by the very same organization that passed the ERISA Act in 1974, and then never enforced it.  As a consequence, private sector pensions hardly exist, and those that have survived are largely in receivership with the Pension Benefit Guarantee Board.  This has been caused by the Congress who failed to enforce the provisions of ERISA that require corporations to make their pensions whole if they become underfunded.  Read the current news as the Administration plans to borrow from the federal employees’ pension system if a compromise cannot be reached on the debt ceiling.  This also occurred during the Johnson Administration to fund the Vietnam War, for which the federal pension fund was not fully restored.

The last time that the Congress passed a budget early into a new fiscal year was 1995 after President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich got tired of abusing each other.  Since then, every year the agencies have had to accept Continuing Resolutions (CR), which have often gone well into the second quarter of a fiscal year before a budget is passed.  Ask any budget officer: the first line items of discretionary spending constrained under a CR are travel and training.  Meaningful operational planning becomes an oxymoron, and the development of the workforce is largely put off to the third or fourth quarter, if at all.  Then many employees cannot be released for training because there is a massive push to achieve operational goals that were held in abeyance in the first and second quarters.  This behavior and condition has existed every fiscal year for approximately 17 years because the Congress and the White House failed leadership 101.

In her Cyberfeds article “Addressing Federal HR Skills Gaps” Julie Davidson wrote: “Human resources has been identified as one of five mission-critical occupations in the government with skills gaps that must be closed immediately, and the Office of Personnel Management and Chief Human Capital Officers Council have set a goal of closing 50 percent of those skills gaps by 2013.”

It is 2013, and in the opinion of this writer we have not come close to closing the skills gap, but it is growing even wider.

In the same article during a hearing on the future of the HR profession before the Senate federal workforce subcommittee, “OPM Director John Berry stressed that efforts are well underway to fill critical gaps in human resources skills training. He said HR specialists now have unprecedented access to training and career-development opportunities through Human Resources University, mentor programs and outreach with Federal Executive Boards and universities.”

Again, I must respectfully disagree with Director Berry because the expenditure of training funds is not occurring in any methodical or thoughtful way.  This is especially true for the HR community because too often these employees are not looked upon as mission essential by senior management.  Accountants, auditors, attorneys, engineers among others have an annual continuing professional education requirement attached to their profession.  There is no companion requirement for federal HR specialists, and there should be.

A 2008 combined SHRM and Wall Street Journal survey “Critical Skills Needs and Resources for the Changing Workforce stated that: “Overall, employers placed the greatest weight on employee adaptability and critical thinking skills. HR professionals and employees both reported that adaptability/flexibility and critical thinking/problem-solving skills were of greatest importance now compared with two years ago.”

In federal human resources we do not need paper pushers; what is desperately needed are professionals who can think critically, be a strategic business partner with management, and problem solvers applying an incredible set of complex laws, rules and regulations.  This takes creativity, understanding, and a myriad of skills that can only be developed over time with a combination of constant technical training and on-the-job experience to learn how to think tactically and strategically.

Many organizations today are relying on e-learning to train their workforce because it is more cost effective. In the SHRM survey one-half of HR professionals reported that their organizations offered skills training through online tutorials and guided programs.  Yet only one-third of employees reported an increased preference for this skills training format now compared with two years ago.

In some areas computer based training (CBT) can be valuable as an educational tool.  However, what is lost is the interaction among the class with an experienced instructor who can bring real case studies to the classroom to reinforce the technical learning.

Because of the budget cuts and annual fiscal gyrations e-learning has become the preferred approach.  Based on my experience as a former college instructor and a current instructor, distance learning is not the panacea for learning.

In Boston, one major federal training vendor has abandoned offering training in this area because the federal community has not supported open enrollment.  The sad fact is that it is true.  Yet, it is far cheaper to send one instructor into a metropolitan area than it is to send many on TDY.  You cannot train a person to be a classification specialist through CBT.  But, the basic position classification course is two weeks long.  The deterrent is I cannot afford to send a person on TDY for two weeks in the present fiscal environment, and to lose a person from the workplace for two weeks is also a drawback to an HR Officer who is already understaffed. When management complains that their HR specialist is not the “strategic business partner” it needs, the blame often can be found in the myopic approach to employee development.

An HR specialist, to be proficient in staffing, must be certified by the Office of Personnel Management, to function in a “delegated examining unit.”  This proficiency demands a complete understanding in category rating, the veterans preference guide, pay setting and its alternatives, computing service computation dates, merit staffing principles, prohibited personnel practice violations, and much more.   This degree of proficiency does not occur overnight or with one or two CBT training courses.

Likewise, an employee and labor relations specialist can do more harm to an organization because they failed to understand case law, due process procedures and more.  The cost of this failure can be reinstatement, back pay, attorney’s fees, and loss of confidence by senior management and other employees.

To become proficient in this demanding area requires training in a multitude of specialties, coupled with years of experience. Presently, there is a cabinet level agency that has a backlog of arbitration cases because much of its in-house expertise has left, they cannot find competent people in the area with these skills, and the do not have the in-house resources to respond to the workload demands.

Another major agency in DC is looking to hire on contract an experienced person in employee and labor relations because it lacks both of these skills as it goes into negotiations with two major unions.  Agencies are finding it very difficult to fill this need.  Both of these areas have a high burn-out factor, and those with this expertise, who have retired, are not looking to jump back into the frying pan.

Two great concerns agencies have today are finding good employees and training them.  The difference between the skills needed on the job and those possessed by the applicants, called skills-gap, is of real concern.

To be successful in today’s environment of federal human resources, an employee has to have a never-ending thirst to learn, bolstered by an environment that is willing to provide quality technical training, mentoring and on-the-job experience.  These major ingredients cannot be applied singularly to fulfill the need.  The desire to learn and to grow is quickly extinguished because management is unwilling or unable to provide the initial training or the continued professional education on a methodical and sustained basis. Finding workers who have employability or job readiness skills that immediately fits in, and to remain proficient in the work environment is a real problem.

The skills gap is the distance between the training employees have, and the technical work that needs to be done. The gap grows logarithmically if the necessary technical training is not provided.

Presently, in the opinion of this writer, it is out of control and getting worse for those in federal human resources.  A good part of the problem is that supervisors, managers and executives often do not understand how the work is done. That makes it almost impossible to understand the investment required to convert human capital into the worker needed on the job who can think tactically and strategically while applying a multitude of regulations and procedures correctly.  Until this trend is reversed, agencies will not need Hospice, agencies will need a funeral director.

Borrowing a closure from one of my learned colleagues who frequently appears in this space, the opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Since retiring in 2011 after nearly 40 years of federal service, Bob Dietrich has been active in training supervisors and HR staff on FLSA and FMLA. He has a three-day course that he can bring to your agency, and he may be reached through the website.