How Agencies Can Tackle Tech Talent Gaps

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Strong brands and room for risk might pay off where government salaries don’t, federal officials said.

The road to recruiting top techies isn’t always an easy street for the federal government, as agencies at times can’t compete with pay and other elements offered by the private sector.

Recognizing the challenges, officials from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Homeland Security Department on Thursday offered examples of certain federal position features and perks that can be highlighted to lure prime artificial intelligence-focused personnel.

“I think when you build a good brand, you can attract people,” DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office Program Manager Rohit Chitale said during a virtual GovernmentCIO event. “Government salaries are not what Google pays, right—or even the Gates Foundation where I used to work. That being said, DARPA has a strong brand and also we have strong links everywhere in the world.” 

Chitale noted in his previous role at the foundation, people would always tell him that any person would willingly accept his call. “And I feel like that's how it is now,” he added, inferring that this plus could appeal amid recruitment.

Drawing on her wealth of experience across industry and the federal government, DHS Chief Information Officer Karen Evans expressed agreement to the barrier that higher salaries in industry roles present to federal hiring—but she also pinpointed that the public sector positions present less funding limitations when it comes to embarking on groundbreaking work. 

“When you're in the government, you can do the art of the possible if you make the right business case,” Evans explained. “So you may not necessarily get your own personal salary, but [you can gain] the satisfaction in how you're affecting things into the future, and being able to do things and invest on behalf of the American taxpayer for things over the horizon.”

And as AI continues to evolve and advance as a field, pressure also grows for the U.S. as a whole to retain a robust tech workforce. Reflecting on global geopolitical concerns DARPA’s confronting, Chitale added “trying to keep talent here—within the U.S. is very important.” He noted that the research agency endows young faculty awards to help boost burgeoning experts in junior research positions and also leads an embedded entrepreneurial initiative to fund companies in early but important development work, in hopes that they’ll be able to create impactful intellectual property. 

According to Chitale, DARPA does not generally offer classic internships, but increasing those and other forums could prove useful—as could booting cross-agency connections and job movement.

“Maybe meeting with [Evans], in the future, we can create these collaborations where we can engender folks from DHS coming over to DARPA and vice versa,” Chitale said. “So I see a lot with that—putting boots where you were before, right, so we have people coming from private firms as well.”

Evans welcomed the potential for future collaboration.

She added that at her own agency, which she joined in June, she’s now beginning to “get [her] hands around all the data and possibilities” to leverage it. Particularly, Evans is working with DHS’ chief human capital officer to harness data to better understand elements of the agency’s workforce, such as the cybersecurity talent gap needs and better grasping the types of expertise that currently exist across personnel.

“[The CHCO] has a lot of data to be able to leverage that, but also then to be able to project out into the future—what are the future skill sets that we're going to be able to have and that we're going to need in order to manage the art of the possible?” Evans said. “Because technology is so ingrained in everything that we're doing, we're going to have to be able to have the right skill sets to manage the art of the possible.”

Emphasizing the government’s role and investments to power new research and development efforts, Evans also noted that at times industry has a tendency to be risk averse, while the public sector promotes pursuing risks to drive new research outcomes—another federal positive worth spotlighting. Homeland Security, as one example, has a science and technology innovation-pushing program based in Silicon Valley to identify and help refine cutting-edge technological solutions that can then be integrated into government operations. 

“I know people don't think of the government as risk takers,” Evans said. “But you do get to take a little bit more risk.”

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