Preparing for a Shortage of Feds in Science and Tech


Six steps can help agencies formulate their STEMM succession plans.

While the federal government has developed a strategy to close the workforce gap in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical fields, little has been done to address specific gaps in these fields in the federal government, according to a new report.

The report, released last week by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, found that there is currently no governmentwide plan to recruit and retain entry-level STEMM employees, nor an effort to train up existing mid-career STEMM employees for senior leadership positions at their agencies.

“While the need for STEMM succession planning is clear, there has been insufficient action on this challenge,” the report stated. “It requires a great deal of forethought, planning and adaptability, given the rapid changes and budget cuts faced by agencies.”

The IBM Center identified four key drivers that require increased focus on STEMM succession planning at federal agencies: a pending retirement wave of senior STEMM staff, delayed development of the STEMM talent pipeline as positions are left vacant as a result of budget cuts and sequestration, fewer STEMM graduates entering the federal workforce versus the private sector, and a lack of qualified candidates to fill vacant senior-level STEMM positions.

A report released last year by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton outlined how agencies can leverage tools already at their disposal to effectively recruit, hire and retain professionals in STEMM fields. That report indicated that STEMM fields are more top-heavy than other federal job fields, with 74 percent of federal STEMM workers over the age of 40, and just 7.6 percent under age 30.  

“The cumulative impact of generational trends, such as government employment boosts in the 1970s, federal downsizing in the 1990s after the Cold War, and lack of recruitment of the Millennial generation, have created a need for strategic and effective succession management,” the report stated.

The IBM Center identified six best practices for agencies to implement STEMM succession planning:

  1. Formulating a strategy for STEMM succession planning to account for rapid changes in STEMM fields;
  2. Identifying mission-critical positions to fill in the event of attrition and the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for success in those roles;
  3. Expanding career development for STEMM employees both at the beginning and middle of their careers to better prepare them for senior leadership roles;
  4. Tracking and validating the professional development and performance of candidates in the STEMM succession pool;
  5. Implementing effective onboarding programs at various career levels that outline the unique aspects of an agency’s strategic mission;
  6. Developing metrics to track and measure the progress and effectiveness of STEMM succession programs.

Agencies also should not have to start from scratch when beginning STEMM succession planning, instead borrowing best practices from other agencies and customizing procedures to meet their own unique needs. Agencies also should emphasize mentoring, job rotations and project-based learning experiences to help groom up-and-coming STEMM leaders for more senior-level jobs, the IBM Center noted.

“Succession planning programs already in place throughout federal agencies are an underused resource,” the report states. “The needs and mission of agencies are a common foundation that can initiate sharing and program development.” 

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