Building a Cloud-Savvy Workforce May Mean Rethinking Degree Requirements

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Government and industry officials question how they can keep cloud positions filled when they require various degrees and certifications.

The challenge of finding qualified IT professionals to work for the federal government is well known. Most often the difficulty is attributed to lower pay scales than in the private sector, the slowness of the hiring process and the sclerotic bureaucracy that is reluctant to change or embrace new technologies.

“Building a Cloud Smart Workforce,” a panel hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center, discussed the workforce shortage and ways that agencies and contractors alike are taking steps to address the problem.

All of the panelists suggested that the hiring paradigm in place—so many years of experience, a college degree in specific fields, particular IT skills—does not suit today’s technological (r)evolution.

“I see a massive shift in the IT space,” said Mike Younkers, Cisco’s senior director for U.S. Federal Systems. “This notion of DevOps and how we can do things differently seems to be embedded and incorporated in everything the way cloud practitioners think, but not in the entire industry … From a skills point of view, we’re looking for people who understand the DevOps culture, the DevOps process.”

“We’re going to have 100,000 job openings for cloud in the next few years,” added Michael Cardaci, CEO of FedHIVE. “That layering of certificates and two-year and four-year degrees and post-graduate work—we can’t just keep doing that.”

Babur Kohy, a cybersecurity expert, consultant and professor at Northern Virginia Community College, agreed. “The gap I see from the government and industry perspective, they’re still looking at a four-year [standard]—you’re overlooking the skills in your own backyard” through community colleges such as NOVA. “We need to think in nontraditional ways, such as workforce development [and] certificate training maybe in a couple of weeks.”

Fred Bisel, training lead in the Cloud & Infrastructure Community of Practice at the General Services Administration, said there is no one-size-fits-all answer. “From the military side, veterans are going to have particular skill sets. If they’re younger, we like gamers. [They’re] not afraid of technology, not afraid to try stuff.”

Newly-minted graduates may have excellent academic credentials, Bisel said, but they have to get hands-on experience. “It’s not just what you do in a classroom, it’s what happens when something is loaded into a real system,” he said. “Certification will help, but when you sit at a keyboard it’s not going to say, ‘Is it A or B or C?’”

“The points you’re making, the need for people to do things [differently], is driving all of us to change the criteria to bring people in to get the work done,” Younkers said. “We try to drill through [all the layers] and get to the interpersonal skills … We have to be flexible enough to say it doesn’t have to be a four-year degree in computer science or electrical engineering.”

Also, the degree or certification has a very short shelf life, the panelists all said. They agreed this is another major reason that traditional hiring criteria are not in sync with prospective new employees—the qualifications that get a person hired don’t stay fresh. Whatever a person knows today about coding, network design or any of a myriad of other IT topics, it will be different, maybe even obsolete, in five years. 

What will help employees, new and existing, adapt to the pace of change is good interpersonal skills, they all agreed.

“Those soft skills are huge,” Bisel said. “You set something up in a lab, Monday through Thursday it’s all peaceful. You come in Friday morning and it doesn’t work … The way people act in good times isn’t the way they act when stuff hits the fan. Those soft skills at 8 a.m. Friday morning may not be the same as those at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning when you’re still working on the problem.”

Just as challenging as the hiring dilemma is the retention problem. New government employees come in fired up about the mission, then run headlong into a wall of bureaucratic inertia.

“Young folks come in with a lot of energy and they run into the large beast that is the federal government, and they feel stifled,” Cardaci said. “The question is how to teach them to look long term, strategically. How to teach those skills. How to help interns and fresh recruits.”

Younkers said his company started a mentorship program to accompany the internship program already in place. “We didn’t have the right mentors in place—we had mentors like me, middle-aged with kids in college,” he said. “I needed mentors who were closer to where they were in life.”

He suggested that getting new, young employees properly situated and ready to contribute actually has to start during the onboarding process. 

“We wanted to … orient them to what we were doing, why we were doing it, what our toolset was, how our processes worked, what our culture was,” he said. “Then we took an intern and asked him to document what the onboarding process actually was. Now we’re learning from them, just as they’re learning from us … so we can get rid of all that ramp [and] sit back and let them do what they do really well.”

Kohy suggested that a new employee’s level of motivation is a key component. “You have to want to be there,” he said. “Don’t try to change the culture, understand it first.”

Even the pandemic has affected the employment dynamic. Younkers observed that he’s used to going to the office every day, talking to the same people. He’s noticed that more established employees like him are the ones struggling in the emerging hybrid work environment. “That’s who I’m trying to help,” he said.

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