As the federal government continues to address challenges in finding skilled workers for open jobs, especially in the IT and cybersecurity realms, the Office of Personnel Management recently directed federal agencies to detail the gains and obstacles they have faced in implementing workforce goals laid out in the President’s Management Agenda.
In a Feb. 13 memo, Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert requires the gathering and sharing of information across agencies about what works best in achieving a 21st-century workforce, and where federal hiring and reskilling continues to lag.
“We’re trying to get a sense of what people are doing and what’s working well so we can share information about leading practices,” Weichert tells FedTech. “We’re also looking to find experiences that may challenge their ability to actually move forward and use that for continuous improvement.”
How to Create a 21st-Century Workforce
The President’s Management Agenda lays out a long-term vision for modernizing the federal government in areas that will “improve the ability of agencies to deliver mission outcomes, provide excellent service, and effectively steward taxpayer dollars on behalf of the American people,” according to its mission statement.
For many federal agencies, a hurdle to achieving those goals is having the right skilled workforce in place. Much like in the private sector, finding talented people for government IT and cyber jobs has been the toughest gap to fill. Nearly 314,000 cybersecurity positions are open in the U.S., and about 17,000 are in the public sector, according to CyberSeek, a National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education online tool that collects jobs data. Weichert says that the federal government also has the unique challenge of finding skilled candidates for attorney and law enforcement jobs.
Weichert says that one of the first things she saw when she took on her role was that IT modernization in government “overall wasn’t simply a challenge of old technology, but a challenge of the fact that we weren’t well set up from a human capital standpoint to actually do the changes that were needed.”
She also noticed that modernization efforts had failed because no one had thought about how to upskill the workforce already in place, and that “we outsourced so much of our technology capability that we don’t have the resources in government to do many of the tasks that we need to do around modernization, including things like procurement,” she says.
Steps toward filling in those gaps include addressing the need to bring in new talent and finding who in the current federal talent pool would be suitable for these jobs.
Finding New Talent Inside and Outside the Government
Of the Feb. 13 memo, Sean Morris, government and public services human capital leader at Deloitte, says, “to me, this is a positive step in the right direction, to put policies and procedures and best practices in place so the government can continue to evolve.”
Right now, he says, many government organizations have “mid-20th-century structures that worked really well in the Cold War” but not today, especially given how the economy has radically changed since then.
“We need the ability to break down some of those structures, and more important, have the ability for those very talented individuals that are going to stay with the government to have mobility across those traditional hard structures. That’s a leverage point for the government to utilize — that becomes a huge asset for them,” he says.
Since the release of the memo, he has seen government clients reach out and ask “how do we think this through? We are being asked increasingly to give our perspective on this and what the government could do to start to move the needle a little bit.”
This move to bring more talent into the federal government has been paired with efforts to identify workers already there who are candidates for what Weichert calls “upskilling,” which is “giving them the skills so they will be able to fill some of the roles that are exceedingly hard to recruit for in government,” she says.
In April, the agency inaugurated its first Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy class. More than 1,500 federal workers with nontechnical backgrounds applied to be part of the academy, far more than OPM expected. “This was our first go-round with no major advertising push,” Weichert says. About 200 candidates passed the program’s initial aptitude test, which led the agency to expand the first class size from 25 to 30.
How to Speed Up Hiring in Federal IT
Helping with these efforts is an April 3 rule change that allows federal agencies to declare special hiring authority if they can show critical need or severe staff shortages in IT positions.
“The federal government has a notoriously difficult time navigating the labyrinth of the hiring process to fill important vacancies,” says Robert Shea, principal and public sector strategy lead at Grant Thornton. “This allows them to circumvent those processes and hire someone without having to compete for the position. So, if you have those skills the agencies can hire those individuals.”
The key is for agencies to demonstrate they have a critical need. “Once they do that, they should be able to dramatically reduce the time to hire,” he says.
Weichert says this rule change is not only crucial in order to bring new people into federal government but also to stop losing employees it already has to the private sector.
“You might have someone who really wants to support the mission of the Veteran’s Administration, but if they’ve got five other job offers and we take six to nine months to fill a slot, people can’t wait around,” she says. That’s critical when it comes to law enforcement jobs, where local police departments can hire candidates faster.
Morris says he is encouraged by these recent steps, and that they should make a big dent in skilled job openings in the federal government. “It’s an exciting time in the government. What Weichert and her team are putting out there is really good, and I think ultimately will get us where we need to go,” he says.