The Office of Personnel Management is utilizing its authority to help federal agencies hire sorely needed tech talent.
The Office of Personnel Management is working on several items to help agencies recruit tech workers, as more than 40,000 cybersecurity positions remain open in the public sector as of September 2022, and other unfilled positions have been felt across the federal technology landscape. In fiscal year 2023, the federal government is expecting to hire more than 22,000 technologists, according to OPM.
“If you want to have a job where you can change the country and change the world in many different ways, coming to the federal government is a great way to do that,” Rob Shriver, deputy director at OPM, told Nextgov. “It’s also very easy to move around within the federal government.”
OPM launched a new federal IT talent job board on January 18 for tech roles across the government through USAJOBS. This job board—to which agencies can continue to add opportunities—will allow candidates to explore positions across the federal government and apply for multiple jobs. The agency also recently launched a new internship portal on February 16 to help hire early career talent.
Additionally, the agency is evaluating compensation for tech positions, particularly at the lower grades—which Shriver noted can be a challenge to recruit—by exploring its administrative authority to provide higher pay rates and make agencies more competitive with the private sector. Shriver also pointed to the special salary rate laws that OPM can authorize for specific occupations or locations when there are recruitment or retention challenges. Agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs have already requested use of this authority to create a higher salary scale for certain jobs, according to Shriver. While OPM has approved the special salary rate to make government more competitive with the private sector, the agency could not provide a timeline on its rollout.
Agencies can also use existing direct hire authority, which “allows agencies to really quickly bring on board people, at least for two years,” Shriver noted.
The aforementioned items, particularly the special hiring and pay authorities, are something that Dave Hinchman, director of Information Technology and Cybersecurity at the Government Accountability Office, classified as important to recruit talent.
“It's needed. It’s a tool that’s missing from the government’s arsenal right now to attract quality folks,” Hinchman told Nextgov, explaining that while some people may want to work for the mission, “there will also always be others who just are chasing dollars. But I do think that there’s probably a need for the special pay authorities, just to be competitive, so that you can sit down and have a conversation with someone who’s maybe particularly skilled in one niche and otherwise isn’t going to give the government a second thought.”
According to Shriver, OPM has worked to help agencies during their hiring surge needs and created a hiring playbook to do so. The most recent official playbook came out at the end of 2021.
Shriver stated that the hiring playbook includes policy flexibilities—such as pay—as well as recruitment and retention incentives provided in the special hiring authorities. It also involves OPM working with agencies to develop their strategic plans, including “combining forces” for outreach and retention to share the message. Shriver said these partnerships have been “one of the successes of this tactic,” as they have enabled OPM to help spread the word about recruitment and hiring efforts.
Additionally, the playbook includes staff augmentation available to agencies to support HR during hiring surges. It also provides for paired hiring actions across agencies, where OPM centrally runs the recruitment to gather talent and then agencies are able to make selections, instead of the traditional one agency job post to one hire model. OPM is also bringing subject matter experts and HR specialists into the hiring process to help find the most qualified candidates for each role.
For example, Shriver noted that OPM ran a multi-agency recruitment effort for several agencies—the Agriculture, Interior, Energy, Transportation, Commerce and Homeland Security Departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency—in need of HR support. As a result, OPM centrally recruited and assessed all of the HR talent. There were approximately 80 individuals selected who then were trained and onboarded.
Some agency hiring professionals may not even be aware of the authorities they could be making use of to onboard tech workers.
“There’s an opportunity [in] federal to educate more broadly about those hiring authorities, so there's more diverse understanding of how they can be used and kind of take some of the mystery out of the ones that people don’t frequently run into or recognize very often,” Erica Ford, principal and U.S. government and public sector people advisory services leader at Ernst & Young, told Nextgov.
“Governmentwide, there are some policies and some flexibilities that agencies can take advantage of,” Sarah Benczik, who leads Deloitte’s Government and Public Services human capital talent team, told Nextgov. “So, the first place to look for flexibility and sort of updating hybrid workplace policy is the broader directives that are available to everyone. But realistically, what matters to these tech workers is the experience that they have everyday on the ground. So it’s really important that their daily experience aligns to what they desire.”
OPM Director Kiran Ahuja will be doing a recruitment program this year, where she will travel to cities across the country to speak to the workforce—including early career professionals and students—to attract talent where people are located.
And though Shriver added that the mission is a “top selling point” for federal government recruitment, some feel the government must do a better job at leveraging that mission to attract talent.
“Government tends to sell itself short basically in terms of their mission,” Ford said. “There’s an opportunity for them to tell their story in a more powerful way…to tell their story to folks that are looking for something different. Compensation isn’t necessarily the top driver, but maybe more purpose-driven work. And so that’s just a real opportunity from a government perspective, to not only fill some of those hard-to-fill jobs, but also bring in some diverse experiences also into their organization.”
Shriver stated that while all positions are important, there is a real need to hire cybersecurity professionals in the government. OPM is also pushing to recruit early career talent, as only 4% of the federal technology workforce is under the age of 30, according to FedScope data.
But Benczik noted that other positions with valuable skills were also likely let go during the layoffs.
“We might think of that workforce as a technology workforce, but there are lots of management and operational experts who are becoming available, and that is equally important to government and equally important to technology,” she said.
According to Benczik, in the private sector, employers are “much more interested in potential and aptitude” for their candidates. She noted this includes opening positions up to people without a traditional four-year degree because of the skills they do have.
“There are also a lot of organizations who are starting to do hire-to-train programs. So for particular skill sets, bringing folks in who don’t have that background and offering them a training program with some sort of contract to stay for a few years,” she added. “And that’s more and more going to be part of, I think, the national conversation on how we get some of these populations into the workforce and working around some of the long-term or institutionalized processes that maybe don’t serve all these populations well.”
While OPM is working on governmentwide efforts, the agency also worked with outside collaborators to help recruit technologists for government roles. In January, OPM and others held a virtual career fair to try to recruit laid off tech workers to fill immediately vacant positions in government. But data on the impacts of that effort is not yet available.
This is the third in a multipart series examining the current state of tech hiring in the federal government.