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Tackling Washington’s Marketing Problem: How Women Tech Leaders Plan to Attract Talent

A lot of innovative work happens within the federal government, but it struggles with its messaging to attract the talent it needs.

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Tackling Washington's Marketing Problem: How Women Tech Leaders Plan to Attract Talent
Photo Credit: GovCIO Media & Research

Major tech companies across the country advertise themselves as exciting, disruptive and interesting places to work. Despite the significant impact, job security and benefits associated with a government career, federal agencies struggle to adequately market these opportunities and attract talent. Worse still, their messaging often doesn’t leave the Washington echo chamber.

“Sometimes I think we limit our outside communication to the extent of having it be a detriment to being able to tell the federal story because there’s so much good going on in these agencies,” Margie Graves, a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government, said at the GovCIO Media & Research Women Tech Leaders Summit on April 13 in Washington, D.C.

Devon Beard, who was recently appointed as the people operations director at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said attracting talent is not just about improving the external representation of the agency or educating the incoming workforce on the mission and government benefits.

“The last piece for me is taking the time to really understand what people are looking for and connecting to that, that they aren’t just looking for a salary, they might be looking for the opportunity to work on a project until their next job,” Beard said. “We’re seeing that the younger generations are not looking for the traditional trajectory of the line in one single way. They want to see what options are way across the field.”

While the mission of public service is appealing to younger people, many are discouraged from pursuing government careers due to the pay disparity between the public and private sectors. With rising living costs, many simply cannot afford to take a pay cut.

To address the issue, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has been on track to approve a government-wide special salary rate for IT workers with the VA as one of the main proposers of the new pay model.

“We’re hoping to implement it [special salary rate] this year… and it will address the pay gap depending on the locality up to 60%. So we’re not going to get there all the way, but we’ll get closer.” Beard said. “In addition to that, we have to think about all the other programs because we’re not just singular, we don’t just work here to get a check. And that comes into this benefits programs, child subsidy programs, the benefits, as far as health care.”

Melissa Vice, the Vulnerability Disclosure Program Director at the Defense Department Cyber Crime Center (DC3), said the GS pay scale, which determines government employee salaries, attracted her to government work.

“There’s a GS scale that’s published, you know exactly what everybody makes, everyone’s making the same thing, male, female, whatever,” Vice said.

In addition to pay transparency, opportunities and the ability to advance and obtain higher-level positions appealed to Vice.

“If you’re going into law enforcement and you’re like ‘I don’t know how long it’ll take me to become a top female detective,’ well you can be a top OSI agent, as a female … so the opportunities are pretty level set within the careers that you can have within the U.S. government,” Vice said.

Renee Wegrzyn, inaugural director of the newly established Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), said the agency is addressing pay disparity from the bottom up. They offer a competitive salary along with the ability to work on research to drive biomedical and health breakthroughs.

“There’s no education that you can get like dropping in an ARPA-H environment for three years where you get to look at soup to nuts to project from concept development, to transition out of the agency bringing FDA to the table, CMS to the table,” Wegrzyn said. “Very rare can you do that in such a condensed period of time, and that’s attractive to some folks.”

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