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How Government Can Compete with Industry for Tech Talent

Federal agencies are increasing pay, diversifying talent and developing policies to create a world-class federal tech workforce.

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How Government Can Compete with Industry for Tech Talent
Photo Credit: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Government agencies all around are seeing recruitment challenges in today’s tech landscape around getting the right talent, training or upskilling the current workforce and diversifying the workforce. It’s a priority of the current administration, with President Biden calling on federal agencies to create a workforce that reflects the diversity of the American people in his June 2021 executive order. To tackle this, organizations are instituting a number of changes to both attract and incentivize working in government.

In the Office of Personnel Management ‘s 2022 Federal Workforce Priorities Report, the agency identified eight priorities to spur productivity and organizational success, including recruitment, succession planning and knowledge transfer; enhancing employee experience and building a diverse and inclusive workforce; leveraging data as a strategic asset; and leveraging technology and modernizing IT processes to build the future federal workforce.

“It is also vitally important to recognize the successes and efforts agencies have achieved with the current workforce priorities, celebrate those successes, and pass on the lessons learned so other agencies may achieve similar successes,” the report said.

Raising Federal Pay

More than 46,000 private sector tech workers have been laid off so far in 2023 in addition to over 100,000 layoffs last year. VA is one agency looking to take advantage of the new talent pool, but must close pay gaps with the private sector to be successful.

“We’re hiring technology professionals for over 1,000 positions — including engineering leads, product managers, user-experience designers and customer-support professionals. Tech professionals who want to level up should join us on the frontlines of VA’s digital transformation,” Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Kurt DelBene said in a Jan. 6 statement to the press.

In some cases, the general schedule (GS) is off by as much as 66% from private sector salaries, and this makes it difficult for government to attract tech talent. To close the gap, VA last year helped develop a special salary rate for cyber and tech professionals in partnership with OPM.

“For too long the GS pay scale has been an obstacle when competing with the private sector for new cyber talent as well as retaining qualified, high-performing employees. Not only does it fail to distinguish between personnel or positions with hard-to-attain skills, but it consistently lags our private sector counterparts who can flexibly craft compensation packages to reflect skill criticality, supply and demand, rising inflation and cost of living,” VA Deputy CIO and Chief People Officer Nathan Tierney told GovCIO Media & Research.

OPM approved the salary rate for federal employees working in 2210-classified IT and cybersecurity positions in January, but it still needs to finalize some details before public release.

“OPM’s approval arrived mid-budget cycle,” Tierney said. “Given the size of [VA Office of Information and Technology’s] technology and cybersecurity workforce — second only to [the Defense Department] — the special salary rate represents a significant financial impact that we had to navigate. OIT has crafted a plan that combines speed with fiscal responsibility.”

VA is currently targeting fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023 to implement the rate. In the meantime, the agency will continue to coordinate with OPM and guide and advise VA’s partners during the implementation phase.

“The prospect of higher salaries that are more comparable with industry should go a long way in swaying individuals who are on the fence about joining government, or those who’ve wanted to become public servants in the past but couldn’t afford to take such a significant pay cut, to make the leap,” Tierney said.

Diversifying the Federal Workforce

At the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), newly appointed Chief People Officer Elizabeth Kolmstetter told GovCIO Media & Research one of her top priorities is closing the gender gap in cybersecurity to ease the cyber workforce shortage, which in turn will “make the nation more ready and prepared to take on the threats of today and those of tomorrow.”

According to a recent report by Women in CyberSecurity (WiCyS) and Cybersecurity Ventures, women comprise only about 25% of the global cybersecurity workforce, even though women make up 51% of the population.

“In order to break this cycle, organizations have to have intentional programs that both hold leaders accountable for developing and advancing a diverse group of people and providing access for women and individuals from underserved communities to those types of opportunities in order to get that same visibility, sponsorship and ability to demonstrate their awesome capability,” Kolmstetter said.

In 2022, CISA Director Jen Easterly rolled out 12 CISA culture principles — starting with “people first” — highlighting trust, empowerment, empathy, inclusion, imagination, teamwork, ownership and resilience to create a culture that leads to mission success. These principles led to the development of CISA’s People First Strategy, which currently focuses on awareness and understanding and intends to move to implementation and evaluation.

CISA has programs that both focus on understanding and addressing specific needs across our demographic groups, like its Employee Association Groups, as well as programs that embed equity and inclusion into its objectives. The strategy also recognizes the need for diversity, inclusion and belonging, which Kolmstetter said will drive desirable outcomes like lower unwanted attrition and higher retention, engagement, innovation and productivity.

The agency has seen notable progress in diversifying its workforce since CISA’s inception in 2020. Since October 2020, the percentage of women in senior leadership at CISA rose from 22.2% to 27.3% as of February 2023. Overall, the agency’s female population has increased by 8.6% since Easterly became director and is currently just shy of 40% female representation.

With continued growth at this pace, CISA is on track to achieve its agency-wide strategic goal of agency parity before 2030, Kolmstetter said. Moving forward, CISA will continue to build on this progress by developing additional roadmaps to lead and guide the workforce.

“We will be rolling out several employee programs or enhancements to current programs and getting more advanced in our data analytics to understand if we are making the improvements and driving the outcomes we are seeking,” Kolmstetter said. “For the longer term, I will be formalizing this strategy into a ‘roadmap’ including implementation phases, steps, and specific actions.”

Bolstering Policy & Technology

OPM is focusing on technology and data to support cross-government workforce policy development.

“We look at policy and guidance that will help agencies do what everybody’s been talking about: recruiting, making sure that we have flexible policies to be able to bring in the best and the brightest; all this work that everybody’s doing is so cutting edge, and we’re so in desperate need of it in the federal government,” OPM Deputy Associate Director of Strategic Workforce Planning Jason Barke said during the Feb. 22 ASPIRE AI Tech Sprint Golden Envelope event with VA.

OPM is taking a multipronged approach as it bolsters federal recruitment strategies by focusing on policy and resources, research and evaluation, training and technical assistance and data analytics.

Barke said OPM is taking a “multifocal approach” to improve skill-based hiring, which includes collaborating with the Office of the National Cyber Director (ONCD) on cyber strategy. Under the partnership, OPM is analyzing general workforce policies and making new revisions so government agencies are more competitive in the job market, ensure hiring processes are equitable and recruit top talent.  The office is also aiming to release a cybersecurity workforce strategy this summer.

OPM recently developed government-wide training for agencies working in a hybrid work environment for how to manage teams in the modern workplace. The agency is also developing a federal cyber rotation program to allow federal cyber employees to transfer between agencies to build and share skillsets.

“It’s really helping to develop and upskill the current skills and build those capabilities that we need, not only internally, but kind of globally as well,” Barke said.

As OPM looks to recruit the next generation of the federal workforce, Barke said the agency is turning to machine learning, AI, RPA and data management to streamline job functions and make OPM more efficient.

Data analytics is “driving human capital management,” Barke added, supporting research like the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and enabling leaders to make data-driven, actionable decisions on the IT workforce.

“OPM has a whole data portal and data strategy that they’re going to be launching with a number of different dashboards out there to help agencies to be able to use that data to track, to look at attrition, to look at retention, how we are doing in certain areas, and using the data that’s at our fingertips,” Barke said. “We need to think about how we build our workforce and make sure that we have the skills that we need in the future.”

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