Perfecting Projects

New IT career track focuses on building program management talent.

At the root of the Office of Management and Budget's 25-point plan for reforming federal information technology stands one critical workforce need: program management professionals who can "steward IT programs from beginning to end."

In laying out the plan, former federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra said program managers would play a major role in aligning disparate stakeholders and ensuring IT projects were delivered on time. At the same time, Kundra saw the human capital challenges-a shortage of qualified program management personnel, a lack of a defined career path for such talent, and limited mobility for these professionals across government. "The size and criticality of large federal government IT programs are considerable," Kundra noted in the plan. "The people managing these programs must represent the best of the best."

A recent survey of federal chief information officers by industry group TechAmerica Foundation and consulting firm Grant Thornton LLP found that the program management field was where CIOs anticipated the greatest increases in hiring during the next couple of years. Despite shrinking budgets, 36 percent of respondents predicted an increase in IT program management staff.

As a result, the Obama administration has been racing to create standards and career paths for this rapidly emerging workforce. In June, the Office of Personnel Management declared IT program management an official career field and laid out standards for agencies to use in determining the pay, series, title and grade for program management hires.

Earlier this year, OPM surveyed employees and supervisors to help paint a picture of IT program management work. In July, the agency used the survey results to create a competency model to identify the skills required. Among the most essential were integrity, decision-making, interpersonal skills, teamwork, leadership and project management.

"The establishment of this new job classification is a validation that program management requires specific skills and knowledge, and of the importance that program managers play in the successful implementation and delivery of IT programs and projects," says Craig Killough, vice president of organization markets at the Project Management Institute. "Program management across the board, not just in IT, is receiving a great deal more attention."

In fact, Killough points to recent research by PMI that found organizations fostering program management talent through certification and career development do better than those that don't. PMI's most recent "Pulse of the Profession" report concluded that organizations that standardize project management meet their goals on 16 percent more initiatives on average. Low-performing organizations spend 64 percent of their project budgets on efforts that fail to meet objectives, while high-performing organizations spend only 8 percent, according to the study.

"Agencies and the CIO Council all felt that this was an important career field that we needed to emphasize," says Andrea Bright, manager of classification and assessment policy at OPM. The government also is working to appeal to program managers by pinpointing the career paths such professionals might follow. "We're focusing on identifying how people get into the IT program management path and at what points in their career, and what background might one have to get into this field," she says.

The White House announced in August an expanded role for CIOs that includes taking a proactive role in recruiting, hiring and managing IT program management talent.

Still, Killough identified some areas where government has work to do, particularly as new austerity measures and calls for more transparency come into play. Agency leaders, for example, do not fully understand the role of program and project managers and could put people who are not qualified in charge, he says. "That creates this problem that we call the accidental program manager," Killough says. "I think the next major step is to make sure that management understands the role and what it takes."

A shortage of qualified program and project management talent, due in large part to retiring baby boomers, also means government will have to beef up recruitment and retention of this critical segment of the workforce, Killough adds. "The shortage of qualified personnel is going to become a huge issue in the next 10 years," he says.

The benefit of having skilled program managers at the helm of large projects applies to more than just IT, Killough says. But Bright contends that no one has plans to make it an official career track for other occupations. "There already is a general program management occupation," she says. "It focuses on those positions that don't require tech knowledge, but where program management skills and competencies are key."

Killough says the next step is to create training programs to help managers build up and fine-tune their skills. "The 25-point IT plan recognizes that having a cadre of senior program managers is critical to ensuring these IT programs are meeting the mission, that career paths are important, and that training and experience are critical," he says. "Now, the wheels are going to start to turn to identify training options and other specific competencies required."

Brittany Ballenstedt, a former staff writer for Government Executive, covers the IT workforce for Nextgov, the magazine's online technology publication.

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