More steps are necessary before the administration's plan to reskill employees truly addresses workforce gaps.
The administration’s tentpole program to retrain federal employees to help fill the government’s cybersecurity workforce gap has hit a snag: Employees need more than new skills to transition into cyber roles at other agencies. The administration has a plan to get recently reskilled employees additional experience, but even more will be needed to truly fix the problem, according to Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
Shortly after launching the Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy, the Chief Information Officer Council received more than 2,300 applications, Weichert said, and officials ultimately selected 25 federal employees with no IT background to join the first cohort.
However, once those people were trained on basic cyber defense techniques, a clear problem arose: They had the skills and certifications, but not the experience to transition into roles that were comparable with their place on the General Schedule, the strict hierarchy of federal employment.
“We were overwhelmed by the actual results of the reskilling activity,” Weichert said during a keynote Wednesday at the Government Executive Workforce and Management Summit. “But we’re having trouble placing them. Not because they’re not qualified, not because they don’t have the skills, and not because they don’t have thousands of open jobs that need people with those skills.”
The problem, Weichert said, is the rigid personnel system.
“Why can’t we move them? It’s not stubbornness. It’s the framework, it’s the business model that says, ‘Well, you’re a GS-9 and the way I coded this job in this agency is not a GS-9.’ We have to look at all the complexity of how the law and the regs treat that.”
Or the flip side. “If someone who is a GS-5 gets these skills, they can’t become a GS-9. The only way they could do that is what? Leave. Because that’s really helpful,” she added sarcastically, noting the only path for someone in that position is to go to the private sector for a time. If they decide to return to the government, those same employees will have to reenter the arduous hiring and background investigations process.
“Five years will pass and the skills that they got—that we paid for—might not be relevant anymore,” she said. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Weichert admitted that she does not have good answers to these problems yet, though she is hoping that speaking about them with fellow federal employees will lead to some grassroots solutions.
One such solution being considered now is using the interagency micro-task platform Open Opportunities, managed through USAJobs. The Open Opportunities platform allows feds with small but skills-heavy tasks to post their needs on the platform and ask for other employees with relevant skills to share their time. The website bills the program as an opportunity to “make connections,” “build skills” and “make a difference.”
Rather than post micro-tasks, as the platform has been used in the past, OPM plans to put out calls for temporary cybersecurity assignments for which reskilling graduates can apply. These positions would be full-time details where grads can get direct experience.
"What we are looking at doing is putting employees who went through the Reskilling Academy on Open Opportunities so agencies from across government can find people with the right skills and give them nine-month details,” Veronica Villalobos, principal deputy associate director for employee services at OPM, told Nextgov. Ideally, the program will ensure academy graduates have a mix of “training and cybersecurity experience to help them compete better for positions."
Villalobos couldn’t offer a hard timeline for the push on Open Opportunities but said the team wants to move “as quickly as possible.”
"We are talking a few months at most,” she said. “But maybe faster because we don’t want any skills to go stale."
Weichert told Nextgov the administration is “absolutely” looking at Open Opportunities as a potential option, as well as others, though those aren’t ready to be shared.
“What, increasingly, we want to do is bring more people in together on issues like that,” she said after the keynote. “The [Chief Human Capital Officers] Council is involved and we’re working as collective management agencies—OMB, GSA and OPM—to look at how do we pull that together.”
But even those programs won’t be enough, she said during her talk. The right solutions will only be found through a broader conversation about what work, skills and training mean in the 21st century.
“A lot of what we have to do is singles and doubles,” Weichert said, using a baseball metaphor for solid hits that progress the game, even if they don’t result in an immediate score. “The cyber reskilling experience is a solid double. A placement program that allows us to run over all those roadblocks, get all of those people placed and then train the 300 people we didn’t have capacity for but have the aptitude and the desire—those are singles and doubles. But [there’s a] broader conversation we need to have—not just as government but as a society. When I look at the challenges that brought me to government, they really were challenges about sea-change in society that is driven by people feeling alienated or left out of the workforce or opportunity because of the nature of their historical work. That’s a profound, important thing.”