Surviving the Next Skill Wave as Public Employees

NPR recently posed the following question: Do we all need to learn how to code software?

According to the article, both Democrat and Republican leaders have expressed a desire to make programming a core skillset, placing it on equal footing with reading, math, and foreign language training.

“Becoming literate in code is as essential to being literate in language and math.”

– Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader (R-VA)

However, not all programming experts agree. After all, having the ability to fix our own automobiles or rewire the electrical circuits in our houses would make us vastly more marketable in each of those fields. But isn’t that why we have licensed professionals in the first place? Having a smaller expert corps allows the rest of us to pursue other interests or careers.

Still, there is a consensus that we should all be able to perform the equivalent of an oil change on our computers.

This thought has me concerned for those of us working in the public sector. Pursuing a career in local, state, and federal government often means holding a “permanent” position. This protects employees from political influence and also allows us time to become subject matter experts, which is essential for a professional, independent bureaucracy. Yet this permanence also means that many employees develop expert power in a particular area at the expense of other skills (including computer skills). Coupled with the slow-moving nature of large public institutions in general, we – more so than workers in other sectors – are particularly at risk of missing successive skill waves.

This risk is especially pertinent now that budgets are shrinking and jobs are looking a lot less permanent than in the recent past. Therefore, we could all benefit from some periodic tech training.

But what would an ‘oil change’ look like when it comes to our computers? Here are a few suggestions for ramping up those computer skills.


  • Shortcuts and Keyboard Commands: If you only use your keyboard to type words, chances are you performing basic functions the long way. The less you use your mouse, the more efficient you will be. The following links contain some essential keyboard shortcuts for Windows 7 and Windows 8.


  • Become proficient in Microsoft Excel. This means going way beyond filtering and arithmetic commands. Shoot for mastering pivot tables and even writing basic macros.


  • Learn a high-level programming language. Despite the name, high-level programming languages are much more accessible than other language types. The most popular of these is Python, which has applications in geospatial mapping (ArcGIS), mobile app development (Google, in particular), and some web applications. Mastery isn’t as important as developing a general familiarity and comfort level.

What are some of your ‘oil change’ computing goals?

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Mark Hammer

When I was an undergraduate, we were all expected to know the formulae for calculating all relevant statistical operations/tests. Memorizing all the subscripts and Greek letters was considered a core competency for the program/discipline (psychology) since one would inevitably have to calculate such things. As we went from “four-banger” calculators with nixie tubes to programmable calculators, then to punch-cards for SAS or SPSS, then to Windows-based desktop packages where one could draw out the structural equation model you wanted to test, a funny thing happened. More emphasis came to be placed on the higher-level abstract reasoning required for choosing and using statistics than the lower-level arithmetical procedural knowledge required for calculating stats.

I suppose there will always be a need for folks who code, but as the data we can acquire gets ever larger, and the number of datasets we work with become ever more numerous, it becomes important for someone to be engaged in higher-level thinking about what needs to get accomplished, rather than occupying themselves with coding. And for succession-planning purposes, it also becomes important for “coders” to be paying attention to bigger-picture issues, so that they are able to eventually take on more responsible roles.

Adrian Pavia

Thanks, Mark, for your thoughtful response. I agree with you, especially when we are talking about the kind of large, complex data projects that public agencies undertake. For those at the top, effective leadership and vision are always going to be more essential than coding literacy. You also make an excellent point when it comes to succession-planning and promotion. It seems paradoxical, but as coders grow obsolete (with the introduction of new technologies), they often are more valuable to organizations through their institutional knowledge and leadership skills.

Having said that, I have to take a moment to reiterate my exhortation to keep our computer skills fresh. This will almost always fall short of coding or programming, but even something as simple as strong PowerPoint skills can keep employees relevant and marketable. When computer skills atrophy, productivity invariably suffers.