Federal personnel officers who specialize in employee benefits should be required to complete a certification training program, according to a recent Merit Systems Protection Board survey of human resources directors at government agencies. More than two-thirds of HR directors support mandatory certification for benefits specialists, although the directors are uncertain about how certification programs should be run, the survey found. MSPB surveyed HR directors at the 24 largest federal agencies and a sample of directors at small agencies as part of a larger study evaluating the Office of Personnel Management. That study is due out this spring. The MSPB survey focused on HR benefits specialists because of their critical role in providing information to federal employees. "We wanted to look at one specialty in HR where the knowledge of technical laws and policies made a big difference," said John Palguta, director of policy and evaluation at MSPB. Recent changes in the laws governing federal benefits and downsizing in the HR workforce make certification particularly necessary for benefits specialists, according to survey respondents. "It's an area where the rules have changed so much over the years that it's quite a task for specialists to keep up," said Jamie Carlyle, senior research analyst at MSPB. Many who responded to the survey said they were concerned about how certification programs would operate. HR directors asked how benefits specialists would maintain their technical competence after being certified, what to do if current employees failed the certification process, and where the funding for certification programs would come from. But the survey indicates a broad consensus among HR managers that something must be done to improve employee training and performance, according to MSPB. "HR directors are saying there must be some way to have employees demonstrate their competencies," said Palguta. Some agencies have already established certification programs for general HR professionals, according to a February OPM study. A program operated by the National Institutes of Health requires HR employees to acquire necessary competencies to be certified as consultants. "I know folks at NIH maintain [the program] has been valuable to them," said Palguta. About two-thirds of the NIH HR staff has completed the initial stage of certification, the OPM report found. "The bottom line is that [HR] certification is certainly worth exploring, although agencies still need to work out the bugs," said Palguta.
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