State IT workers must prove skills to keep jobs

5:50 PM, Apr 11, 2013   |    comments
Robert O'Connell
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By Michael Cass / The Tennessean

Gov. Bill Haslam's administration is forcing 1,600 information technology workers across state government to re-apply for their jobs in an effort to screen out those who can't master the skills of a rapidly changing field.

The state employees association said IT workers are nervous. But the state's chief information officer said most of them don't need to worry.

"This is really not about getting rid of people," Mark Bengel said Wednesday. "It's about making sure that we do have the skills and we have the ability to develop and retain staff in the future."

He said Science Applications International Corp., a consulting firm, has started looking at 23 state agencies' IT operations and analyzing the gap between the skills employees have and the ones they need. Most of its recommendations won't take effect until the 2014-15 budget year.

"Technology is moving so fast that skills are obsolete in the blink of an eye," Bengel said.

The changes come in the wake of several large-scale computer system problems that have hindered operations in various state offices, including the Department of Children's Services, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and the Department of Human Services. The state's "Project Edison" system, launched in 2008 to bring outdated payroll, accounting and vendor tracking systems into a single, integrated system, was rife with glitches for a couple of years.

Haslam told The Tennessean last fall that some computer systems were "in the ditch." In part due to those difficulties, the governor has established a Business Solutions Delivery office to centralize IT expertise as the state embarks on contracting for future projects.

Bengel said the IT challenges at some of the departments "certainly contributed" to the restructuring decision.

A year ago, Haslam steered legislation through the General Assembly to rewrite civil service rules and allow the state to lay off employees based on job performance instead of straight seniority.

According to a state Office of Information Resources memo obtained by The Tennessean, each state agency with IT operations "will receive a draft, standardized organizational structure that has been aligned with the mission of the agency. This draft organizational structure will be populated with newly created IT job classifications."

The memo says people who already have state IT jobs and meet minimum qualifications "may apply and be interviewed for the new classifications."

"Interview preference will be given first to impacted agency staff, second to impacted staff from other agencies, then to any qualified State employee," the document adds. "If an employee applies for but is not hired into an available position, the agency will either reassign the employee to a vacant position for which the employee does qualify, or the employee will be affected by RIF."

"RIF" is short for "reduction in force," or layoffs.

'A lot of stress'

Robert O'Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, said the threat of upheaval "creates a lot of stress" for IT workers forced to reapply for jobs they've held for a while.

"That feels bad," he said. "Basically what somebody in that position is being told is, 'You have lost your job, but there's another one over here you might qualify for.' "

Lola Potter, a state spokeswoman, said the memo was "part of an ongoing dialogue" with state IT employees, who helped develop some of the "staff classifications we have identified to help us recruit and maintain IT staff."

Bengel said the state expects to spend $6.5 million on IT training over the next 18 months as it struggles to compete with the private sector and a low unemployment rate for skilled IT workers.

"The only way we're going to be able to compete is to grow our own," he said.

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