Federal executives also weighed in how to recruit for a future-focused workforce.
The Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Chief Information Officers Council are working on interagency rotations where graduates of the government’s reskilling academy can hone their new skills, an OPM official said Tuesday.
At a Nextgov event in Virginia, federal executives weighed in on creative practices agencies are adopting to simultaneously recruit a tech-savvy workforce of the future and boost present personnel to stay on top of the evolving technological landscape.
“When we talk about reskilling and upskilling we’ve noticed that many employees become very fearful. So, we are looking now at how do we create a continuous growth mindset,” OPM Principal Deputy Associate Director of Employee Services Veronica Villalobos said on a panel about the workforce. “How do we get employees to expect that their jobs are going to continuously evolve and that, rather than having fear around that, they actually have excitement and see opportunity around it?”
President Trump launched the first federal reskilling academy last November, in an effort to provide government personnel with nontechnical backgrounds hands-on training in cybersecurity, while also addressing the government’s current critical shortage of cyber and tech talent. The first class recently completed training and applications for the second cohort also opened this summer.
Villalobos said OPM is now working to establish a sort of rotational program so that folks who went through the academy can gain new experiences that they need and are required to make use of the skills they learned.
“So you can imagine the vision is they’ll have the three months of training and then they’ll have nine months of the rotations program where agencies can be exposed to their work, and we figure out how they can be a productive fit within the different CIO shops,” Villalobos said during the panel. “So there is still hope and we are going to figure out how to do this very agilely and be as quick as we can so that skills don’t go stale.”
Such rotations could curb some of the challenges faced by the first cohort that may have participants from transitioning into cyber roles. For example, Nextgov previously reported that two recently reskilled workers did not move into new roles, either because they did not want to or they were not allowed to make a jump down on the General Schedule scale. At the Agriculture Department, Deputy Chief Information Officer Francisco Salguero witnessed the latter for himself. Still, he believes reskilling is vital to instilling necessary change across the agency’s workforce.
“If you are a GS-14 and you want to be reskilled, whether you are doing it in cybersecurity or robotic process automation—it ends up being, you know, maybe a developer is going to be a GS-12 or a 13—and that’s not conducive to where they want to go,” Salguero said. “But at least they’ve been exposed to the new technology, to a new way of thinking … so I would definitely say it’s worth it.”
The panelists also reflected on modernizing how the government recruits the savviest workforce.
“It’s not easy to hire someone into the government,” Director of Talent at U.S. Digital Services Andréa Viza said. “And I think that really has to transform for people to continue coming into the public sector.”
USDS adopted nontraditional recruiting practices to stay on the leading edge. The agency works to include all present employees in the recruitment processes for new candidates and also conducts candidate interviews over the phone to reduce some of the bias that can come from initial in-person interviews. USDS is also piloting an effort with OPM, and Interior and Health and Human Services departments to support agencies in being more thoughtful about how they assess candidates. The new effort would allow agencies to involve the government’s top subject matter experts from the very beginning of the recruitment process.
And when considering candidates, USDS also does not look for specific educational backgrounds, especially in technical fields.
“People come from all different walks of life and their paths to get here are not always normal,” Viza said. “And so that’s why we put our personal touch with anyone that we interact with or engage with to ensure that we’re giving them the ability to tell us their story, versus just kind of pulling it off of a piece of paper where they might not promote themselves as well.”
The panelists also discussed how the government will be able to adequately compete with commercial powerhouses that are either already in Washington, or soon to be here (think Amazon HQ2), when it comes to vying for top talent. All panelists agreed that agencies’ missions can be a real motivator in wooing the future workforce. Still, they acknowledged that it can be tough to compete with the pay scales that their commercial counterparts can offer.
In that light, Villalobos noted that the government can offer a work-life balance and other incentives that insiders should emphasize during recruitment. Student loan forgiveness, relocation and retention resources, pension plans, teleworking options and mobility to move across federal agencies offer applicants the potential to feel like they’re doing something meaningful, but also have their own lives—a strong incentive in the insiders’ eyes. “We have tools out there and what we need to do is to help agencies get better at using them,” Villalobos said. “So we have more flexibility than we think, I’d say.”
Rodney Peterson, the director of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, also highlighted two programs recently put in place that could help combat challenges around commercial recruitment competition. The CyberCorps Scholarship for Service offers students who pledge to serve two years of federal service tuition ease and reimbursement. It’s funded through the National Science Foundation and is highly competitive, but Peterson said the ultimate hope is that many students who are obligated to do service for the federal government end up staying in it and become part of the permanent workforce.
A more “important and exciting opportunity,” he said, is a recently announced public-private partnership known as the Cybersecurity Talent Initiative. Through the program, companies including Microsoft, Workday and MasterCard are paying off student loan debts of people who pledge to serve two years in the federal government and then transition to the private sector. The first application deadline is days away.
Peterson believes there will be a lot of mobility between the two sectors as the workforce evolves, and programs like this offer the sort of mobility that’s a “win-win” for both the private sector and the government—especially if candidates opt to return back to federal roles in the future.
“So we need more creative initiatives like those two examples to really address some of the recruitment issues,” Peterson said.
And when it ultimately comes to the workforce of today and tomorrow, Peterson said it's critical for federal officials to distill the myth that career trajectories are always like ladders: “Up, up, up.”
“So we often talk about career lattices, where you’re able to move side to side. Or even highways where there’s off-ramps and on-ramps and that’s really true in cybersecurity [with reskilling],” he said. “Also, we think of it as a maze. When you are trying to advance in the maze you come to a dead-end sometimes and to get out of that dead-end you have to go left and you have to go back, and then you find the way out—and it’s even better than when you started.”