Trump’s Budget Pushes Bonuses and Reskilling to Build Up IT Workforce

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The budget calls for reskilling 400,000 federal employees using OMB’s Reskilling Academy as a model.

The president’s 2021 budget proposal includes a 1% pay raise across the board for federal employees but also outlines a strategy to entice younger and IT-savvy workers to join the government and retrain the existing workforce.

The federal government has a serious aging problem when it comes to the IT workforce. The budget documents note a continuing trend seen over the last several years: the percentage of IT-focused employees over the age of 60—nearing retirement—is over 14.2%, while IT workers between 20 and 29 years old account for only 2.7% of the workforce.

For comparison, 13.8% of the entire federal workforce is over 60 years old and 20- to 29-year-olds make up 6.2%.

The administration’s plan to bridge that gap includes better incentives and rewards for highly-skilled and performing employees and expanding the retraining initiatives from the centrally-managed Reskilling Academy to more focused programs stationed at each agency.

One method called out in the workforce supplemental to the president’s 2021 budget proposal would be to focus the use of performance-based bonuses for staff with critical skills.

The supplemental notes agencies, on average, use about 1% of their salary budgets for “performance awards,” or bonuses for high-performing employees. However, the document states agency leaders often make these awards in a “non-strategic manner.” The administration plans to correct this.

“In addition to lifting the cap on the amount of salary devoted to awards, the 2021 budget includes funding for agencies to spend an additional one percentage point of their salary budget on awards for their high performing employees and those with critical skillsets,” the supplemental states. In the past, these “critical skillsets” have included cybersecurity and IT development.

“By raising the cap on that salary and rewards component that is associated with the discretionary budgets in the agencies, we are encouraging agencies to tackle this issue where they are,” Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert said during a call with reporters Monday. “And there will be administrative changes that come from OMB to reinforce the ‘how’—how we want to encourage this type of behavior.”

The budget also calls for greater use of term appointments to bring skilled people from industry into government for temporary stints.

“While the administration will focus on using the statutory flexibilities the Congress has already provided, it will also seek further statutory flexibilities to improve hiring and performance management,” the workforce supplemental states. “Reflecting both the needs of government and preferred career paths of top talent, these new authorities would: (1) enable the temporary hire of highly qualified experts; (2) create an industry exchange similar to that which allows nonprofit employees and academics to serve temporarily on government projects; (3) expand the limits of temporary and term hires; and (4) modernize qualification requirements.”

But the central push from the administration to fill the workforce gap has been the Reskilling Academy, which began in April 2019 with a cohort of 30 feds learning basic cybersecurity skills. Those employees went into the program with no discernable technology skills and came out with a baseline understanding of cybersecurity.

Due to the proscriptive nature of the General Schedule—the regulations that govern federal employee pay and seniority—those people were not able to transition into cybersecurity jobs. The graduates had the skills but either decided to stay in their roles or declined to take jobs at lower GS levels. 

“It’s not stubbornness,” she said. “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,” Weichert said in October. 

The budget notes these previous efforts, and requests that Congress fund additional investments in “training personnel with the aptitude for cybersecurity to fill these critically needed roles.”

“The targets are places where we know we will need more people to do these jobs of the future and we know we don’t have in the broader economy,” Weichert said Monday. “That’s people with that skillset—data science, analytics, cybersecurity and, broadly, project management. These are all important areas.”

The next class of the Reskilling Academy will focus on robotic process automation, or RPA, according to the budget documents.

“These employees will learn how to conduct process mapping and develop and deploy ‘bots’ without the need for extensive information technology training,” the documents state.

More broadly, the administration hopes to expand the idea of the Reskilling Academy across government, with the goal of retraining 400,000 employees. Rather than remain centrally-managed out of OMB, the future of the Reskilling Academy will be federalized across agencies.

“The expectation is that the 400,000 reskilled individuals will fit a set of criteria. … They will be funded, largely, at the agency level,” Weichert said. However, “We will continue to invest centrally on pilots like the Cyber Reskilling Academy, like the Data Science Workshop,” which she said shows “the art of the possible.”

Weichert said OMB is also looking at areas like procurement and other critical skills.

“But the large dollars for this will come from the agencies themselves,” she said. “We’re engaging with some of the national unions on workforces—such as the IRS workforce that have been impacted by shifts in the market such as electronic filing—to also reinforce that reskilling aspect in order to ensure our existing employees have the best shot at being part of our workforce going forward.”

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