Issue Briefs

Following is the summary of an MSPB report examining various aspects of training for federal employees.


This research was conducted as part of the Merit System Protection Board’s (MSPB’s) responsibility to study the Federal workforce. The purpose of this report is to contrast employee perceptions of the trainability of job-relevant competencies with research findings about the actual trainability of these competencies. The results should help agencies identify and avoid training which targets less trainable competencies and is therefore less likely to be successful. This may help make more effective use of the increasingly scarce Federal training dollar.

The MSPB is studying training because the Merit System Principles state that training should improve organizational and individual performance and the Federal workforce should be managed efficiently and effectively, selected and promoted according to their job-related abilities, and treated fairly and equitably. At the MSPB we take a strategic view of training, seeking to identify Governmentwide patterns to inform agency decisions about training.


Two primary methods were used to examine training needs and training experiences of Federal employees. The first was a literature review of competency models and research related to the trainability of different types of knowledge, skills, and abilities. The second was survey research centering on three open-ended questions placed on two Governmentwide surveys: the Merit Principles Survey 2005 and the Merit Principles Survey 2007. These open-ended questions were developed to capture information about training needs, job requirements, and training courses attended.


A review of the professional literature on competencies and human mental abilities reveals that some competencies needed by Federal employees may be more responsive to training than others. On the basis of this review, we created a six-category classification system for responses to questions about training needs, training attended, and job qualifications. This taxonomy includes Knowledge competencies, which are highly trainable; Language, Social, and Reasoning competencies, which are moderately trainable; and Motivation and Mental Style competencies, which are less trainable. The survey data collected indicate that Federal employee attitudes generally correspond with the research literature. However, a significant number of employees may avoid training that would help them or seek training that might prove to be frustrating and unsuccessful because of misperceptions about the trainability of various competencies.


To examine Federal employees’ training needs and training experiences through the lens of which competencies are more trainable or less trainable, we included several questions about individual training needs on the MPS 2005. Our analysis of the survey results indicates that:

1. About forty percent of employees reported that they needed training for highly trainable competencies; fifty-seven percent sought training for moderately trainable competencies; and only three percent targeted less trainable competencies. Despite the relatively low percentage of Federal employees attending training for less trainable competencies, it is important to examine this issue. In a Federal workforce of nearly two million employees, many of whom seek more than one training experience each year, this relatively small percentage represents tens of thousands of instances of training. Identifying the factors associated with employee decisions to attend training that is less likely to be productive may help agency decision-makers expend fewer resources on unproductive training.

2. Employees who engage in formal career development planning are less likely to target less trainable competencies when they seek training. However, fewer than half of Federal employees engage in such career development planning.

3. Strengthening use of training pretests and other screening can reduce frustration and wasted resources that result when employees seek training that is unlikely to be successful because they lack prequisite learning or ability.

4. These issues are complicated by beliefs held by many that most abilities can be gained or improved through training.

We used the results from the MPS 2007 to examine the training classes Federal employees attend and whether they target more trainable or less trainable competencies. The MPS 2007 also included more specific questions about this training experience. Our analysis of the results indicates that:

1. Many employees attend training to develop highly and moderately trainable competencies.


2. Supervisors and other sources of environmental support for training seem to encourage development of moderately trainable competencies, for which employees seek to improve their skills.

3. Attendance at training for less trainable competencies is sometimes imposed as a requirement.

4. Attendance at training for some competencies that are actually less trainable is seen as enjoyable, is recommended by other employees, and is seen as likely to improve job performance unless workplace barriers prevent such improvement.

The last two factors may encourage employees to attend training that is not likely to improve the competencies it targets.

We also examined the competencies that Federal employees believe are most important to be successful in their type of job from the perspective of whether they are highly, moderately, or less trainable. The MPS 2007 included a set of questions addressing the skill or ability most critical for each survey participant’s current job. Our analysis of the survey results indicates that:

1. The full range of highly trainable, moderately trainable, and less trainable competencies is seen as important in the Federal workforce.

2. Federal employee beliefs about the relative trainability of competencies are not completely accurate, which can result in inefficiencies in hiring and training decisions.


This study yielded four recommendations for supervisors of Federal employees:


1. Supervisors should increase the frequency and quality of career development planning. This can be expected to increase the quality and positive impact of training by ensuring that trainability considerations inform training decisions.

2. Supervisors should include in their review of employee training requests the trainability of the target competency and how prepared the employee is to benefit from the training. The supervisor should talk to the employee about these issues.

3. Supervisors should conduct training needs assessments of their employees and consider how trainable identified needs are when developing training plans.

4. Supervisors conducting needs analyses should not rely solely on identification of gaps between current and optimal employee ability levels. They should consider the likelihood that any particular deficiency can be improved by training before adopting training as the solution.


The study makes five recommendations for decision makers in Federal agencies:

1. Agencies should track and periodically examine reasons for repeated attempts by Federal employees to learn the same training content.

2. Agencies should encourage use of pre-training preparedness testing, meaningful training prerequisite requirements, and realistic previews of what training covers.

These tools will make it easier for employees and their supervisors to determine whether training is likely to be successful.

3. Agencies should use assessments of training and experience sparingly for selection and promotion decisions. Resumes and job applications will often contain lists of classes taken that may not have produced any competency development. Hiring officials should be especially wary of training experiences that targeted less trainable competencies.

4. Agencies should focus selection for hiring and promotion on competencies critical to job performance that are less responsive to training as a first priority and important moderately trainable critical competencies as a second priority. If the selection process will not be overburdened by additional testing, agencies may include assessments for critical competencies that are highly trainable as a third priority. This strategy appropriately focuses on acquiring abilities through selection that may not be easily developed through training on the job.

5. Agencies should reconsider sending groups of employees from a work unit or larger organizational unit to the same training. Such training for less or moderately trainable competencies may not match the needs, talents, or preparedness of some employees and may not be a good use of agency resources.

Finally, we include a recommendation for the Office of Personnel Management:


OPM should consider developing an online Employee Development Guide. OPM has helped agency personnel make better decisions about assessment tools by providing the online Assessment Decision Guide.2 This guide distills information about the relative strengths of employee selection tools into practical guidance that agencies can use to improve assessment in their hiring processes. OPM can build on this success by creating a similar online Employee Development Guide that educates agency personnel about competency trainability, use of prerequisite requirements and pretesting to establish employee readiness to learn, effective instructional design, and other information that will help employees and their supervisors make good training decisions.