Contractors lack skills to help agency modernize, Customs official says

Retraining urged as knowledge of new technologies falls short

Most IT contract workers at Customs and Border Protection do not have the information technology skills the agency will need in the next few years as it modernizes its systems, a senior official said today.

The bulk of the current contractor workforce of 3,268 people in CBP’s Office of Information and Technology (OIT) needs to be more familiar with new technologies to help the agency transform itself, Ken Ritchhart, deputy assistant commissioner, said at a seminar today sponsored by the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council.


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“About 70 percent of the contractors are not qualified for the new target environment,” Ritchhart said. Some will be able to retrain to become qualified, and some likely won’t be able to achieve that, he added.

“You need to retrain. That is quite doable,” Ritchhart said. “You cannot take the same folks we have and do it without training.”

CBP's OIT is in the process of “federalizing” its workforce by hiring 1,000 additional government IT employees, bringing the roster to about 2,500 by the end of fiscal 2011, Ritchhart said.

By converting a contractor employee post to a government employee, the office can save up to $40,000 per person, with a projected savings of $40 million overall, he said. Some of the savings are derived by hiring less-experienced workers at lower salaries, he said, but those workers have in their favor a familiarity with the latest technologies.

Ritchhart also noted that more than $1 billion in OIT procurements will be awarded in the next six months. His advice for contractors and systems integrators is to offer a high return on investment, fast delivery, scalability, availability, security, open interfaces, “plug and play” capabilities, integration and “elegant simplicity."

A problem Ritchhart said he has noted with contracting is that vendors often are predisposed to a particular solution. For example, he said a vendor recently offered a solution that cost $5 million and would be ready in six months. An inhouse team at CBP developed an alternative solution in 45 days at a cost of only $500,000, he said.

“The biggest problem is that people want to do things the way they always have been done. But there is always more than one way to build a system. We don’t always do a good job of analyzing alternatives,” Ritchhart said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Reader Comments

Tue, Jan 18, 2011

It's ironic that most of the 1,000 additional government IT employees will be insourced from the same contractors that have 70 percent of the people not qualified for the new target environment.

Tue, Jan 18, 2011 Reston

I hate how "legacy" technology gets a bad name and agree with the post about taking your technical info from salespeople and "advisors" such as Gartner. Agile, objects, BPM & "architecting". .. giving a solid functioning but older practice a new name does not make it better, it usually just makes it more costly. Prototype, subroutines, Analysis & design. Passes? Or old names for the same thing (but cheaper. Agree that small businesses not necessarily getting a shot. Govt agencies using H1B's - ridiculous. Also seeing places overusing documentation/SDLC - I don't mean you shouldn't use SDLC - but one site I know is requiring 56 - yes FIFTY SIX -documents for EVERY CHANGE. Force this on one side and pretend that you are agile?? Ridiculous

Mon, Jan 17, 2011 Marcelle Green

The question now becomes how can you change the fact that 70 percent of contractors are not qualified for the new target environment? I read that government agencies do not hire contractors that are smart enough to do a job… I think it’s time to change that. The CBP should try finding contractors who can do the job (for a fair price) instead of simply hiring contractors that are less experienced to save a few bucks.

Mon, Jan 17, 2011

Hey I got an idea – try using ‘different’ contractors.

Our firm has tried to market to the CBP for over six years and kept getting “sorry no help want”. They give the work to billion dollar firms, at three times the sufficient rate, and wonder why they get sub-par performance. Meanwhile small businesses are left to starve and die. Great plan numb-skulls.

Large firms simply cannot compete with small firms, on IT Service Support contracts, because small businesses historically carry less overhead.

Sun, Jan 16, 2011

Unfortunately the federal government is not accustomed to change although the worked provided by contractors isn't any better than work provided by anyone else they are willing to do more for less. Maintaining the way business was ran in the 1930's is certainly different than what is going on today.

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