Bill to Loosen Government IT Requirements Faces Rocky Road

Bill to Loosen Government IT Requirements Faces Rocky Road

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

By Kerry Gildea, Contributing Writer

Pressed by industry concerns over the dearth of qualified information technology employees to fulfill government contracts, the Senate is expected soon to take up a House-passed bill that would ease education requirements for individuals contracting with the federal government for IT services.

But opposition from the White House may derail any effort to turn the legislation into law.

The House last month passed the Federal Contracting Flexibility Act of 2000 (H.R. 3582) that requires federal agencies to justify using minimum education and experience requirements when contracting for IT services.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who introduced the bill and whose district is laden with IT companies, has been meeting with senators to find options for moving the bill through the Senate.

A Davis aide would not discuss the status of those talks, saying only that Davis is looking to attach to the bill to some larger measure that the Senate will be slated to consider in the upcoming weeks.

The Davis bill has broad bipartisan support and is expected to pass Congress this year, said the aide, who asked to remain unidentified.

Even if the measure makes its way through the Senate, however, it faces opposition from the Clinton administration. The Office of Management and Budget released a statement May 2 that calls for rejecting the House-approved bill.

"The administration does not support House passage of H.R. 3582, the Federal Contractor Flexibility Act," said OMB, which is part of the executive branch. "The administration supports the principle that a federal agency should not specify experience and education requirements for contractor personnel in the procurement of information technology unless the agency otherwise cannot assure its needs will be met without such requirements.

"However, the administration favors addressing this issue through better management practices, rather than through the enactment of additional laws," said the OMB statement.

Davis, an influential Republican House member, said OMB's solution is not sufficient to fix the problem.

He called on the White House to reverse its position, pointing to independent reports that confirm federal agencies are worsening the shortage of high-tech workers through "overly cautious" policies against hiring two-year college graduates and people with little experience.

In September 1999, Davis said, the Virginia Commission of Information Technology reported the nationwide shortage of IT workers at an estimated 364,000, with more than 24,000 of those in Northern Virginia alone. The commission noted that community college graduates with technical specialties could fill many of those vacant jobs.

The gap in skilled IT workers is even higher than that, according to a recently released study from the Information Technology Association of America, which put the number of unfilled jobs across the United States at more than 840,000 this year.

"It is shocking, that, in many instances, Bill Gates and Michael Dell are not allowed to perform contract work for the federal government," Davis said. "Since they do not hold a college degree, some federal agencies would not permit them to perform IT work for the government."

While the bill has broad support from the IT industry, some educators have questioned the reasoning behind the measure.

Like much of the IT-related legislation now being considered by Congress, there are advantages, disadvantages and questions that need asking, said Susan McGorry, assistant professor of business at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa.

McGorry has researched trends in education and e-commerce to develop programs for graduate and undergraduate students.

"While this legislation would circumvent the issue of worker shortages and fill immediate needs of the government solicitors, there is a risk of hiring inexperienced workers," McGorry said.

Members of Congress should consider how the bill may discourage continued education and training in the IT field, she said.

"The majority of these less-educated workers will lack the long-run strategic vision necessary to successfully implement these projects due to lack of experience, training and education," McGorry said.

Also, trends in academia are changing to reflect the new economy and support students' transition into IT fields, she added.

"Many schools currently are developing four-year programs in IT and e-commerce, and many students are already graduating from four-year programs," McGorry said. "Traditionally, there is a time lag between industry and academia; we're beginning to see the narrowing of that gap."

The Clinton administration has argued that increased emphasis on implementation of performance-based contracting, or PBC, will achieve the same goals as the House bill. Under a PBC approach, the government identifies its requirements in terms of desired performance objectives rather than emphasizing how the work is to be performed.

"When PBC methods are used, the contractor decides how best to address issues involving resources, such as personnel and relevant qualifications, necessary to meet those performance objectives," OMB said in its May 2 statement.

Implementing PBC places increased emphasis on past performance, which allows the government to determine if a company's track record on IT performance merits future contract awards.

Use of PBC with consideration of past performance during an evaluation process should help achieve the ends sought by the bill, "avoiding situations where agencies specify unnecessary minimum experience and education requirements for contractor personnel," the OMB said.

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