Aug 18 2021

Creative Ways to Bridge the Federal IT Skills Gap

Novel approaches, such as an elastic engineering framework, are emerging to help agencies secure in-demand IT talent.

Federal IT leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to accelerating modernization and implementing new cybersecurity requirements, including those outlined in President Joe Biden’s May executive order on cybersecurity.

The Office of Management and Budget in 2020 estimated that approximately 400,000 federal employees, nearly 20 percent of the government’s current workforce, will need to be reskilled. The need in the area of IT is particularly acute.

Federal agencies are voraciously adopting multicloud solutions, with nearly 30 percent of respondents in a new ATARC study saying that they are using between six and 10 different cloud solutions, and another 33 percent saying they are using one to five cloud offerings.

Meanwhile, the complexity of managing these cloud tools is growing exponentially. The same study cites workforce issues as one of the greatest barriers to adopting cloud offerings.

It’s clear that the IT skills gap among federal IT workers must be addressed, but how? It’s time to transform the resource model paradigm, particularly in terms of how talent resources are procured and financed. Creative approaches, such as elastic engineering frameworks, are beginning to emerge as options to secure highly skilled, on-demand resources while also helping to elevate in-house competencies.

The Problem: Federal Agencies Lag in Race for IT Talent

Federal agencies are focused on accelerating IT modernization. To do it, however, they need more IT talent, and they need it quickly. Federal IT shops, however, are struggling to keep pace due to head count limitations, lengthy hiring and security clearance processes, and intense competition from the private sector.

From my experience in government IT leadership, I understand firsthand the arduous process of hiring in the federal government, especially for positions that require security clearances. These processes, while necessary, exacerbate an already serious talent squeeze. This reality was a driving factor in the federal government’s commitment a few years back to embrace commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions and rely heavily on outsourced resources.

However, we’re seeing the pendulum shift away from COTS in recent years as the federal government’s technology requirements have become increasingly complex and unique. As the federal government is once again focused on building its own solutions, the talent squeeze and skills gap has once again come to the fore as a constraint on more rapid adoption and innovation.

The bottom line: The government simply doesn’t have the expertise it needs at the scale required to deliver solutions quickly, and competition for talent is more intense than ever.

DISCOVER: Which IT skills are most sought after in the federal government?

Agencies Faces Restrictions in Working with Systems Integrators

To solve its IT resource issues, federal agencies have historically relied on federal systems integrators to deliver expertise and execute projects. Contracting restrictions, however, place stringent constraints that limit FSI resources to specific contract vehicles.

There is little flexibility to realign those resources to meet emerging demands without more rigorous contracting. In addition, with subsequent projects, federal IT leaders find that they are often mapped to an entirely new set of FSI resources, which requires them to repeat the learning curve for each new initiative.

While the FSI model is necessary and adds value for many initiatives, today’s IT leaders also seek greater flexibility and agility and need the resources to support new projects quickly and pivot as needed.

RELATED: How can agencies compete with the private sector in IT hiring?

Subscription Engineering Is a Force Multiplier

Today’s rapidly changing requirements demand a new approach. Agencies are embracing the subscription model for computing resources, and it’s time to apply this same concept to technical expertise, engineering and development resources in particular.

A new paradigm is emerging based on the concept of an engineering pod subscription service, enabling the elastic engineering support that today’s federal IT leaders require. Elastic engineering is outcome-focused to provide consistent value on projects.

With elastic engineering, feds have access to a team of engineering specialists — or a “pod” — with a broad range of capabilities to deliver a broad range of solutions over the course of the subscription.

The idea is that agencies can engage with these pods for short-term support or an extended relationship. IT leaders can leverage those resources across one or multiple projects and realign them as needed to address changing priorities.

The key to success with this approach is that resources must be hands-on, doing the work needed to help agencies meet the mission. Workers must also have all the necessary security clearances in place and understand the federal agency model and requirements.

Additionally, the resources in the pod must remain consistent, enabling the team to build a strong understanding of the agency, its priorities and culture. This eliminates the perpetual learning curve and accelerates time to value. Relationships also develop that can facilitate transfer of knowledge to federal IT team members.

Times and requirements have changed, and so must models for procuring much-needed talent. A subscription engineering model provides a viable and attractive path forward. Agencies benefit from flexible resources focused on outcomes and can adapt to meet changing requirements and advance knowledge transfer to internal teams. This approach will pave the way for faster and more effective modernization across the federal government, just as cloud computing did more than a decade ago, while revolutionizing how agencies deliver on their missions.

gorodenkoff/Getty Images