By the Numbers: Federal Agencies Face Uneven Struggle Hiring Young Tech Talent

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At one civilian agency, IT pros over 60 years old outnumber their under 30 colleagues 19 to one.

It’s no secret the federal tech workforce is getting older, but some agencies are having a lot more difficulty recruiting young IT professionals than others, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.

And while civilian agencies generally face the most lopsided age disparities, the importance departments place on building a long-term talent pipeline varies greatly.

In March 2018, only 3 percent of the government’s 84,097 tech specialists were less than 30 years old while some 14 percent of IT employees were over the age of 60. That means federal technologists at or approaching retirement age outnumbered their 20-something counterparts roughly 4.6 to 1.

But looking agency by agency, it’s clear some are having have a much harder time attracting young workers.

The Air Force employs some 1.3 tech workers over 60 for every person under 30, and the Justice Department stood roughly at 2.2 to 1, the closest ratio of all civilian cabinet departments. At the same time, the ratio at the Treasury Department came in at 9.8 to 1, and at the Veteran Affairs Department, age 60-plus tech specialists outnumbered their under-30 colleagues nearly 19 to 1.

The Nextgov analysis used data from OPM’s FedScope portal on government workers employed under series 2210 positions, designated as “Information Technology Management.” Figures are not included for the Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and State departments. Each employs less than 1,000 IT specialists and there was not enough available data for an accurate calculation.

While the age-gap ratio itself isn’t the problem—agencies probably wouldn’t tap an entry-level worker to directly take over for a retiring senior official—it’s a symptom of an unbalanced talent pipeline.

“We need to have that next generation of leaders primed and ready to work in the government,” said Margot Conrad, director of federal workforce programs at the Partnership for Public Service. “If we experience a significant amount of retirements ... and we don’t have that next generation that’s ready to fill those critical missions, then we’re going to have a problem.”

The analysis found civilian agencies have more trouble recruiting young people than the Pentagon and the military services. Non-defense agencies employ some 7.4 IT specialists over 60 for every person under 30, roughly triple the figure for the Defense Department.

The workforce pipelines at the largest civilian agencies, the Homeland Security Department and VA, are in two very different states.

Homeland Security employs some 4,800 IT specialists, of whom 165 are in their 20s and 690 are age 60 or older. By contrast, the VA’s tech workforce contains only 58 employees in their 20s and nearly 1,100 who are approaching retirement.

Looking at broader age breakdowns of government tech shops can help shed light on other workforce trends. Today, VA’s age-gap ratio is worse than those of the Transportation and Treasury departments, but the latter two both have more tech workers in the 50 to 59 range. As those people age, the agencies’ workforce could grow more lopsided if they don’t bring on more young employees.

Washington, We Have a Problem

In March 2010, the ratio of 60-plus to under-30 IT specialists stood at about 1.9-to-1, and that figure more than doubled over the next eight years.

The reasons for the growing gap are twofold, Conrad told Nextgov. The federal workforce has a wave of baby boomers approaching retirement, and at the same time agencies are struggling to bring on the next generation of federal tech workers, she said.

Since 2010, the number of retirement-age federal IT specialists grew 64 percent and the number of young technologists in government shrunk 30 percent. There’s no single cause for the decrease of young technologists in government, but Conrad said it stems from a handful of general obstacles agencies face when recruiting those employees.

One major factor is compensation. The government can’t offer the high salaries tech-savvy 20-somethings might earn at startups and industry giants in Silicon Valley, she said. On top of pay, the private sector can often provide more flexible benefits packages than government organizations, something she said is very important to the younger generation of employees.

Additionally, the hiring process often takes significantly longer and is more opaque in government than commercial tech companies, which can turn off potential applicants, she said. And because it’s difficult for job seekers to keep tabs on their application status, they might take jobs elsewhere while they’re still in consideration.

Conrad also believes agencies don’t do a great job marketing the work they do. If young people are unfamiliar with a specific group’s mission, it’s unlikely they’ll consider applying to work there, she said.

Still, some agencies have done far better bringing young people on board as baby boomers age out.

Between 2007 and 2017, both Homeland Security and VA saw the number of 60-plus IT employees rise, but while the number young workers in Homeland Security tech shops grew more than 75 percent during that time, the number of 20-something IT specialists at VA fell nearly 75 percent.

The Homeland Security Pitch

Homeland Security Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey told Nextgov the agency’s mission is its strongest means of recruiting young people.

“It’s a mission I think a lot of people love to get their arms around … we safeguard the American people and our homeland,” she said. Homeland Security is primarily a law enforcement agency, so nearly every project or investigation has some kind of tech component, she said. And the rapid churn of projects means employees aren’t always doing the same work day in and day out.

“It’s an environment where you pull together as a team, you swarm in, you get the job done and get out,” she said. “I think that’s conducive to these younger tech employees.”

At a recent hiring fair, Bailey said each component made a point to give job seekers an intimate look at the type of work they’d do at the agency. The National Protection and Programs Directorate let attendees demo cyber tools they’d use in incident response, Customs and Border Protection ran a firing range and the Secret Service brought in an old model of the Beast, the presidential limousine.

The ability to provide potential applicants a hands-on experience sets Homeland Security apart from other agencies, Bailey said, but the agency also makes an active effort to overcome hiring challenges that plague government generally.

At the fair, components also conducted interviews, made tentative job offers and began candidates' security clearance process. Bailey said those steps alone cut six to eight weeks off the hiring process and helped dispel the stereotype about how long it takes to join government.

The agency also “make[s] use of everything that’s out there rather than whining about what’s not out there,” she said.

Homeland Security takes advantage of internships, OPM’s Pathways program and recently launched a personnel management platform to help bring in more young tech employees, she said. Her team also collects metrics on the success of various recruitment methods so Homeland Security can direct its limited resources most efficiently, according to Bailey.

The VA Pitch

Like Homeland Security, the Veterans Affairs Department also uses a swath of hiring authorities and emphasizes its mission when recruiting candidates, said Val Cummins, who leads the IT branch of VA’s Human Capital Management Office.

“I’m not appealing to how much money you want to make … I’m appealing to your heart and your mind,” he told Nextgov. “Who would not want to come work for those who have borne the battle?”

Cummins said the agency swore off the “post and pray” strategy—in which groups announce openings online and wait for applicants to come—and today’s recruiters actively mine resumes on USAJobs and reach out to potential candidates.

The agency also uses special authorities to hire vets and disabled workers, as well as the governmentwide direct hire authority for cybersecurity positions, he said. Officials work closely with career managers at the Pentagon and host recruiting events at military facilities to bring on service members as they end their tours, he said.

So What’s the Plan?

Cummins said his biggest priority is maintaining the employee lifecycle, a process that entails expanding the skill sets of the current workforce and infusing the agency with a steady stream of new hires.

“Congress, the administration, have given VA the resources it needs to be successful,” Cummins said. “It’s all about having a strategy, and we have a pretty solid strategy. We’re aware the workforce is aging, that’s why we’re creating those pipelines to really mitigate that age factor.”

Cummins said VA focuses on building a sustainable employee lifecycle and ensuring there are enough IT specialists to fill spots when older workers leave the agency, and those people aren’t necessarily coming from entry-level positions.

He went on to acknowledge the importance of bringing on young employees, but said he’s hesitant to use age as a measure of workforce strength. When asked to contextualize VA’s age-gap ratio, he suggested reframing the figures.

“It’s all how you want to look at that data,” he said. “Listen to how this sounds: The VA has an experienced IT workforce. It’s a totally different narrative. We have to have an experienced workforce, not an aged workforce. They may be synonymous. I think we need to change the narrative.”

Bailey, however, wants change the way Homeland Security frames tech jobs to directly appeal to a younger generation. She said her team is starting to emphasize the long-term career benefits of government training in fields like cybersecurity.

“We have to really think of training, growth or learning opportunities to be part of the whole compensation package, and we need to start talking about it that way,” she said.

Homeland Security is also looking at ways to change performance reviews from a formal sit-down once a year to a more continuous feedback loop, according to Bailey. Additionally, instead of pitching candidates on a lifelong career, Homeland Security frames entry-level tech jobs as stepping stones to careers elsewhere in government or the private sector.

Bailey said her office thinks of the strategy as a means to build more well-rounded employees—people learn the basics at Homeland Security before going on to gain more experience in other industries. Still, she said the agency always leaves the door open for those people to come back with newly acquired skills.

“We’re not going to solve the nation’s cybersecurity issues within the federal government, we’re going to solve them with partners,” she said. “Cybersecurity’s a team sport. There is nothing better than having people who are versed in both the federal environment [and] the private sector.”

“We’re trying to look at everything and say ‘what does the 21st-century work look like, and what does the 21st-century worker look like,’” she added. “Then [we] design systems and programs to meet that future need instead of constantly looking backwards.”