GAO: Mission-Critical Gaps in Skills Among Federal Workers is a 'High Risk'

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The government needs to do a better job identifying and eliminating gaps in critical skills and competencies among federal workers, according to a new watchdog report.

“Mission-critical skills gaps within specific federal agencies as well as across the federal workforce pose a high risk to the nation because they impede the government from cost effectively serving the public and achieving results,” the Government Accountability Office concluded in a new analysis. GAO on Wednesday will release its biennial list of government programs and areas that are at high risk for mismanagement and other problems. Skills gaps within the federal workforce first appeared on the list in 2011.

The growing number of federal employees eligible for retirement threatens to exacerbate the problem, GAO said. Budget pressures, declining job satisfaction among federal workers, and more government jobs requiring advanced degrees and qualifications are other factors contributing to agencies’ ability to maintain a talented workforce capable of carrying out their missions. Thirty percent of all career permanent employees on board as of Sept 30, 2013, will be eligible to retire by 2018, GAO said.

The Office of Personnel Management created an interagency group as well as a data program dubbed HRstat a few years ago to figure out the mission-critical occupations where agencies had trouble recruiting and retaining employees with the proper skills. GAO said overall progress has been “mixed” because the challenges across the government are diverse and “not fully captured” by OPM. “At times, goals have suffered from having targets that are difficult to measure,” the report stated. “Likewise, agency officials have chosen to track metrics that often do not allow for an accurate assessment of progress made toward these goals for closing skills gaps.”

OPM, working with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, has identified six mission-critical jobs across government: cybersecurity; auditor; human resources specialist; contract specialist; economist and STEM occupations. GAO identified other jobs -- in telecommunications and petroleum engineering -- where the government lacked personnel and/or competency. According to the watchdog, mission-critical competencies across government included: data analysis, strategic thinking, influencing and negotiating, problem-solving and grants management. OPM will release a new set of mission-critical skills gaps by June 2015.

GAO praised OPM for building the “infrastructure” to tackle the problem and its commitment to addressing it. But the watchdog had several recommendations for OPM, including developing better defined and more measurable goals and outcome-oriented performance metrics, as well as crafting standard practices for project planning (e.g., identifying root causes and assigning roles and responsibilities for tackling the problem).

For instance, GAO criticized OPM for tracking how many federal HR personnel signed up for HR University, which is an online training program, as a measure for closing the skill gap related to human resources. “We agree that while ensuring that human resources professionals receive proper training is vital, relying on a metric of how many people register for and complete a single online course is not the most effective way to assess the outcome of closing skill gaps within the human resource occupation,” the report stated.

OPM also lacks a process for collecting governmentwide competency data, and GAO found that the agencies studied in its audit used different metrics to track gaps in skills under HRstat. “Because our selected agencies are using different metrics, it is difficult for OPM to assess where agencies are making progress, where additional efforts are needed, and how OPM might be able to help them, if at all. It also limits the ability of agencies and OPM to discuss and share lessons learned in identifying and addressing skills gaps,” the watchdog concluded. OPM’s database to collect staffing information across government – Enterprise Human Resources Integration – is still in development.

The agency agreed with some of GAO’s recommendations and rejected others. For instance, OPM pledged to work with the CHCO Council to develop a core set of metrics that agencies can use in HRstat, but said it was impossible for EHRI to automatically capture data because some agency projections and targets are provided manually. The agency also cited funding constraints related to EHRI, as well as OPM’s ability to support other agencies’ efforts to address their workforce competencies.

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