Federal Agencies Must Boost the Brand in Order to Attract Tech Talent, Report Says

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Two of the top reasons the federal government struggles to attract talented tech workers are lack of awareness and a lengthy hiring process, according to a new report.

Federal agencies need to strengthen their brand and work to shorten hiring timelines in order to compete for tech talent, according to a new report. 

The Partnership for Public Service released a report Thursday that pulled together interviews with human resources leaders from across the federal government to create guidelines for how the federal government can improve the recruitment and hiring process. Margot Conrad, director for government affairs at PPS, told Nextgov that agencies need to do a better job telling their tech stories in order to recruit the talent they need. 

Conrad said the pool of available tech talent for both the public sector and the private sector is already limited because demand is so high. But while big tech companies are able to sell themselves with relative ease, the opacity of government functions makes it harder for people to understand what opportunities for rewarding tech work in the public sector are out there.

“Let’s take cybersecurity for example,” Conrad said. “They might think about going to work for the CIA or Department of Homeland Security, but they might not realize that there are significant needs for IT and cyber talent all across government.” 

One statistic demonstrating this problem is the age of the workforce. Less than 3% of IT specialists in the federal government are under the age of 30, according to data the report cited from the Office of Personnel Management. That’s the lowest number out of all the categories the report highlighted, which also included economists, HR specialists, auditors and contract specialists.  

Part of the problem with recruiting top talent is the length of time for hiring in the federal workforce averages 98 days. That number is more than twice than the private sector average, according to the report. Not all delays can be avoided, though. For example, obtaining a security clearance takes time. But Conrad said there is still plenty agencies can do to stay competitive with the faster turnaround of the private sector. 

“One strategy is to assign a point of contact that can kind of stick with candidates especially if the clearance process is long and arduous,” Conrad said, adding that the goal is to make sure recruiters stay engaged and make the experience as positive as possible if it is going to take time. 

The report also highlighted tools developed internally by agencies to improve the recruitment and hiring process. Doing a better job of organizing data related to recruitment can help turn hiring into a strategic tool rather than something that has to be mobilized when there are vacancies. 

One example is the Federal Bureau of Investigation's workforce planning tool. FBI created a model using data to forecast attrition, which allows HR to anticipate vacancies and begin to search for new talent ahead of time. According to the report, the model also includes data on how many candidates don’t complete successful background checks, which in turn helps supervisors understand how many people they need to interview to eventually fill a position. 

Implementing the model required buy-in across the agency, though. The HR team at FBI had to work to make the tool user-friendly, as well as educate the workforce on how to use it and how it helps. It's imperative that HR has the appropriate personnel in-house to be able to both develop smart hiring projects and explain how the technology is going to help the agency hire the right people, Conrad said.  

“Some of it is really just cultural, and some of it is making sure that you have talent on the team that's able to build these systems,” Conrad said. 

The coronavirus pandemic is shining a light on the latent issues with human capital in the federal government, according to the report. COVID-19 created a real need within federal agencies to hire personnel quickly, and therefore shined a spotlight on the barriers that encumber the hiring process.

“It really shows that there needs to be a strategic investment in workforce planning,” Conrad said.