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How Tennessee Plans to Solve Its IT Problems

In an effort to keep employees and their skills up to date, the Volunteer State is urging 1,600 IT workers to reapply for their jobs.

Every government struggles to keep up with technology innovations these days. Blame budgets. Blame project management. Blame the talent. Regardless of the reasons, it is important to keep employees and their skills up to date -- that's what Tennessee learned after a number of failed IT projects. As a result, the state re-envisioned its workforce.

To do this, CIO Mark Bengel and his team worked with a consultant to review 1,600 IT positions across the state, determining what skills they had and where there are gaps. This kicked off a reclassification for every employee, which will essentially open up all 1,600 positions to competitive bid and urge employees to reapply for the new positions. All this will all take place over the next 18-24 months.

I asked Bengel how the state is handling the reclassification and reapplication process, and what benefits they anticipate. His condensed, edited responses appear below.

What is the overall goal of this process?

Asking employees to reapply is just a small part of a larger initiative. It comes down to this: Tennessee has increasingly had issues supporting newer technologies and being able to find sufficient technologies. We've had some challenges with some of our legacy modernization projects. We needed to do something to solve this problem for the future. With the silver tsunami that is looming, we fear that if we don't get ahead of this, we'll have serious issues in a year or two.

How are you planning to meet the goal of creating the workforce of the future?

A number of states have just outsourced all of their IT, but we don't see that as a silver bullet for us. So we developed a project that's premise is: If we are going to meet our future staffing needs, we have to grow our own. They can be trained and developed. We can develop career paths to promote and retain our best and brightest. We can partner with state colleges and universities. We can improve our outside hiring. This is staffing baselined to current and future needs.

How do you intend to go about this?

We want to do targeted training through our IT academy. We want to train people for the next knowledge level and always be developing, always be moving people upwards. The problem with that is that the classifications for employees are 30 years old. They don't reflect what the staff members are doing. They are catch-all positions. There is no way to do targeted training with current classifications, so we decided to rewrite all of our job classifications.

Once we created all the new classifications, the question was, how do we get our staff in the old positions into the new positions. We decided the best way to do that would be to let them reapply for these new positions and make sure we have the right people in the right classifications. This was not about looking at people to decide who can stay or who can go-this was and is about making sure our people match our positions and we get people for our future needs. Things are changing quickly in IT and we have not changed quickly enough to keep up with that.

How will this impact employees?

We have 1,600 IT employees across the state. All of the current positions will be changed to new positions and everyone will be moved to the new classifications. Many employees will go from an old position to a similar one, but all IT employees in the executive branch will be impacted in some way. I'm not expecting big impacts, but I can't say there won't be any.

How have you communicated the changes with employees?

We've been doing a lot of town halls. Certainly there is a lot of concern. We're trying to be sensitive to that and communicate with them as much as we can.

How has the Tennessee State Employee Association reacted to the changes?

I think they are concerned, but as they better understand what this is about-it's about training and career development-it really aligns well with what they want.

Where does the project stand today?

We are about one-third of the way through new job classifications, and we want that all done by July 1. None of the rehiring will start before an agency's [skill inventory and gap analysis] assessment is done. Then, agency-by-agency, the rehiring will all happen over the next 18 to 24 months.

Is there a budget for the training that will need to be done?

The governor has actually gone out and put $2.5 million recurring in his budget. I have $4 million budgeted right now for training over the next 18 months, with $2.5 million recurring after that in our budget. In the history of the state, this is the largest investment in IT training. States fail when they don't train and evaluate staff, and the governor recognizes how critical this is. We're hoping that if we can develop employees at the bottom, we can addict them to making significant change and we'll keep them as long as we develop, train and advance.

This article originally appeared on Image from Shutterstock.

Noelle Knell has been the editor of Government Technology magazine for e.Republic since 2015. She has more than two decades of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.