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VA Pushes for Growth of Its AI-Capable Workforce This Year

The agency’s tech leadership wants to hire more IT staff, train more workers on AI and bring in more employees from the private sector.
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Kurt DelBene speaks at a public meeting of the Defense Innovation Board in Austin, Texas March 5, 2020.
Kurt DelBene speaks at a public meeting of the Defense Innovation Board in Austin, Texas March 5, 2020. Photo Credit: EJ Hersom, Defense Department

The Department of Veterans Affairs is seeking to hire more staff capable of working with artificial intelligence in 2024, according to agency leaders. VA CIO Kurt DelBene and CTO Charles Worthington spoke to reporters last week about the unique “value proposition” the agency gives to employees coming from private industry.

DelBene told GovCIO Media & Research that the agency is focused on leveraging and uniting all efforts of the VA’s AI teams under a single governance structure, upskilling its zero trust capabilities and hiring or training more talent to work with AI.

“As the footprint of [Veterans Health Administration] and [Veterans Benefits Administration] expands because of the PACT Act, we [need to] have a proportional increase that we need to add in terms of our footprint geographically to all the different facilities we have to actually support them with end user support,” DelBene said.

As the agency embraces AI in its operations, Worthington said the VA will need to focus on building out its “bench of practitioners” who know how to use and build AI capabilities and then implement those capabilities within the context of the VA. As the staff is built out, the technology will be used in low-risk, non-data sensitive pilot projects where they will be tested before decisions to scale them are made.

Before the agency can tackle its hiring goals, it must wait for a resolution of the budget by Congress. DelBene said the agency has “line of sight to multiple hundreds of people that we would like to hire, but our ability to hire those people depends upon us getting the budget to be able to do so.”

Worthington addressed some of the issues that have arisen outside of the budget like the culture in tech around public service, the lower salaries than private industry and the difficulty of the process of applying for a job in government. Worthington said a change in mindset about working in government will be key in hiring and pulling talent from the private sector.

“I do think the tech industry needs to think of public service as a part of their job as a whole, just like the legal fields and the scientific fields,” Worthington said. “A significant number of the best lawyers, the best scientists, they do public service for some part of their career. I don’t think we’re going to be fully out of this until the tech industry also views it as its job to spend part of their careers in public service.”

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