The Department of State, which oversees the Foreign Service, employs 1,600 IT professionals with 1,100 deployed to 250 embassies and missions across the world. In 1999, the U.S. Foreign Service faced a critical information technology staffing problem. Thirty-three percent of the IT jobs at domestic facilities, embassies and missions across the globe were vacant. High pay in the business sector and a booming economy siphoned off interest in computer-related careers in government. Clearly something had to be done. These computer-based systems transmit information critical to the well-being of the nation and U.S. citizens abroad and play a key role in the war on terrorism.
At that time the State Department initiated an innovative Skills Incentive Program (SIP) as part of a long-term strategy to attract, train and retain IT professionals both to the Foreign Service and to Civil Service positions within the State Department. The strategy included a hiring bonus designed to attract highly skilled candidates in a competitive job market. After hiring, all qualified IT staffers have the opportunity through the Skills Incentive Pilot Program for a 5 percent to 15 percent salary increase by earning industry-recognized certifications or by acquiring a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the Information Computer Technology field, if they do not already have one. There is no cost to the professional for training or certification taken through the School of Applied Information Technology, the State Department’s IT Training arm. The program emphasizes that certifications are career-enhancing credentials recognized globally. This complete package has proven to be attractive for career-oriented, motivated individuals. Since the program was launched, the number of applications for Foreign and Civil Service IT positions within the Department of State has risen steadily. Certification credentials are tied directly to the Department’s strategic IT goals. For example, as the Department seeks to improve its Information Assurance posture; certifications such as the Certified Information Security Systems Professional (CISSP) have been added to the approved list of certifications.
The Department has benefited from this program by having an increasing number of its personnel certified in a comprehensive range of desired IT disciplines. This has improved consistency, quality and productivity across our domestic facilities, embassies and missions. Staff retention is high, and the position vacancy rate hovers near zero both abroad and at home.
At the close of fiscal 2003, more than 983 of the Department of State’s IT professionals (an estimated 60 percent of the eligible workforce) qualified for an incentive/retention allowance. These workers earned $5.5 million in bonuses. Since the program calls for a constant skills review to make sure they reflect the newest technologies, there is an aggressive continuing education requirement. At the end of the calendar year, almost 250 participants had already met their 2004 continuing education compliance requirements.
Focusing on industry-developed certification offers additional advantages. The School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT) has an abundance of best-in-class courseware to select from. The school’s administration now has an independent means of measuring the effectiveness of training by the rate at which personnel master the exams. The school links certification training into comprehensive job skills tracks and builds competencies in all the major areas of IT from network administration to security.
For example, at the entry level, the school emphasizes CompTIA A+ and Network+ Professional certifications. We feel so strongly about the foundational worth of these programs that our new hires sign an agreement to either earn CompTIA A+ Professional certification through SAIT’s Desktop Systems course, or test out of the A+ course by passing the A+ certification exams. If they do not accomplish one of these, they can be dropped from the program. The final exam for these foundational courses is the certification test. New hire passing rates for A+ and Network+ exceeds 95 percent, which CompTIA tells us is significantly above the national average. We have recently begun to incorporate CompTIA Security+ as foundational to security training.
Certifications that are recognized in the program along with those from CompTIA include Microsoft, Cisco, Lotus, certain telephone systems and Motorola radio systems. More than 2,400 certification exams were given in the School of Applied Information Technology’s authorized testing center last fiscal year. Contributing to the success of our learners is the fact that the school encourages instructors to be certified both as trainers and as subject matter experts.
External review supports our contention of the success of the program. The Federal CIO Council Committee on Workforce and Human Capital for Information Technology recommends that other agencies use the State Department’s Skills Incentives Program as a model for best practices for attracting, developing and retaining an exemplary IT workforce.
We believe that a skills incentives program, similar to the one described here, has value for organizations that make large investments in technology, both inside and outside government. The cost for developing and maintaining a skills incentives program can be a fraction of the expense of the systems themselves. For example, it is estimated that the federal government will spend over $59 billion in fiscal year 2004 on systems and continue with a 4 percent growth annually over the five years. The benefits of a skills incentives program include spreading best practices across the organization, attracting the best and the brightest, and retaining these men and women. We believe that by investing in our workforce these benefits can far outweigh the cost.
The Key Results
Today, all but a handful of IT positions are filled. The Foreign Service arguably has the highest trained and best-motivated applied technologies workforce in its history. Although currently, there is a surplus of IT professionals compared to the number of open positions in the business sector, there is still a need to fund staff development and retention programs. The workforce is aging, leading to an increase in retirement, and the number of people entering the IT field has fallen slightly. The economy is recovering, and the need for key people in network administration, project management, application development and security is increasing. Any surplus of job applicants today can easily become the scarcity tomorrow.
The success of the Department of State’s mission to serve America’s interests abroad depends on the capabilities of information and communication systems and the expertise of the men and women who administer these systems. Nothing less than a vibrant skills incentives program is called for, not only today, but also for the generation to come.
Robert Novak entered the U.S. Foreign Service in 1975 after three years of military service in the U.S. Army. As a Regional Communications Electronic Officer (CEO) he completed assignments in Kinshasa, Zaire; Cairo, Egypt; and Bonn, Germany. Later he served as a Regional Director for IT Support in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Vienna, Austria. He has served in various senior leadership positions in the Department of State, including Director of the office of Architecture and Planning, the Director of the Office of Information Technology Infrastructure and most recently as the Dean of the School of Applied Information Technology at the Foreign Service Institute.
More About the Department of State’s School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT)
Established in 1996, the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Applied Information Technology is responsible for training State Department IT professionals for the implementation, administration and support of information and communications systems here and abroad.
The School of Applied Information Technology training curriculum is a mix of courses covering the intricacies of commercially available hardware and software systems and technology and systems proprietary to the State Department. Newly hired Foreign Service IT professionals go through intensive training—17 to 26 weeks in length depending on the curriculum pursued by the individual. To put this into perspective, FBI special agents receive 16 weeks of training when entering the bureau. The School of Applied Technology emphasizes classroom training. Instructor-led online learning is also offered.