The Pandemic May Push the Federal Workforce to Face Fears About Reskilling 


Officials point to how modernization can create opportunities, as angst about job loss swirls.

The predominantly virtual work environment induced by the coronavirus could force federal employees to come to grips with a need to up or round out their skills in order to adapt to the government’s modernization goals.    

“We oftentimes are in a situation that we don’t realize requires us to be more nimble,” said Robyn Rees, adviser on human capital and diversity, policy, management and budget at the Department of Interior. “I would posit that with the pandemic, the fire’s here at our doorstep. Some people are experiencing displacement as a result, and some people are experiencing opportunity as a result. Which makes it more relevant and timely to put yourself in this picture and try to figure out how to collaborate and move forward.” 

Rees was among the panelists during an event the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center hosted Tuesday on the government’s reskilling efforts. Other speakers included Roland Edwards, deputy chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security’s management directorate; Doc McConnell, cybersecurity policy advisor for the Office of Management and Budget; and Amiad Grandt-Nesher, a director of infrastructure optimization for the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence.

ATARC President Tom Suder opened the event by voicing a common sentiment heard as the government first started looking to save resources by migrating operations to cloud providers.

“I think back to cloud, ‘oh you need to move to cloud, you need to move to cloud, we’re going to move to cloud, well, I’m in the data center, what happens to me? What happens to me and my family as we’re doing this?’”  

That, he said, prompted efforts to perpetually train the existing workforce to be more resilient and now, the pandemic has made everyone more acutely aware of that need.

“We need to figure out how we package reskilling and sell reskilling,” Edwards said. “Oftentimes it’s you know considered to be [for] abolishing jobs and sometimes that’s just not what it is. The pandemic is a great example of how the federal workforce moved very quickly to try to make sure that we were able to provide meaningful work for staff who, their day-to-day job may have involved a lot of routine office functions but now we’ve got to figure out how we transition that.” 

McConnell pointed to some positive side effects of having to run a new reskilling program on data science completely virtually. The program, which will train 60 agency-nominated employees eight hours a week for six months, will not be limited by geography, can make use of more appropriate materials, and better lend itself to working on a larger scale, he said. 

Grandt-Nesher added that reskilling should be thought of in a more holistic way on the job. In the acquisitions process, for example, the office of the chief information security officer is seen as an impediment to establishing new contracts and could be more helpful in training workers so they might embrace changes that could radically shorten the procurement cycle, as with the emerging DevSecOps model.

“We need you to bring your CISO shop inside,” he said. “CISO is not a blocker for innovation, CISO is an empowerer of innovation. Another piece people tend to drop a lot is that as you bring in new technologies, suddenly your CISO shop is also responsible for training people or at least making rules for people on how to use these new technologies safely. Most of the CISO shops don’t understand that this reskilling is within their wheelhouse.” 

Grandt-Nesher would like to see a lot more acquisition aided by automation. 

With DevSecOps, he said, “We get to a point where a developer submits code into a repository, that repository gets absorbed into the security process and it gets tested and approved, and eventually sits in front of the person who does the certification, clicks submit and them plugs it back right out into the DevOps pipeline and goes into production, which is beautiful, it’s the way I would like everything to work.” 

But to do all of this, he said, a team needs to have DevOps skills, the infrastructure needs to be in place, and the CISO needs to champion such efforts.