USDA on a mission to make its workforce more data savvy

The Agriculture Department is on a mission to make its workforce more data savvy.

That’s a key focus of its Data Science Training Program, and a key element of a department-wide data strategy released last year.

Chris Rottler, the chief data officer of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), said the Data Science Training Program started as a pilot three years ago, with about 20 employees.

FNS launched the training program following a departmentwide data skills assessment. The assessment flagged skills gaps across USDA, and that the department needed to train its data workforce in open-source languages like R and Python.

In response to the assessment, Rottler said FNS developed custom training on how to utilize USDA’s suite of data science tools on the department’s Enterprise Data Analytics Platform (EDAP)

Rottler said his team developed a custom curriculum that gave employees hands-on training to use USDA data in the EDAP platform.

The training program started with 20 employees in its first year, but soon spread to other agencies within USDA. Now in its third year, the program has 160 employees.

“The program itself has become a major component of not just FNS’, but USDA’s upskilling strategy, because it’s working and there’s a huge demand to participate from across USDA,” Rottler said on a recent episode of All About Data. 

The training program now offers a beginner’s track, an intermediate track and an advanced track. Fredy Diaz said USDA employees also recently heard from experts talking about generative AI and its potential use within USDA.

“Programs like the USDA Data Science Training Program are really a key spotlight of what we can do if we work together, and really boost everyone together from a workforce perspective,” Diaz said.

Building up USDA’s data and analytics workforce is a key feature of the department’s FY 2024-2027 data strategy.  It’s the second enterprise data strategy of its kind at USDA.

“The first one, it was more about getting programs stood up, ensuring that we understood the value of data at USDA, and really building on that. Now that we have a lot of accomplishments and successes, it’s more about building on that and continuing that level of success and maturity,” Diaz said.

CDOs across the department are also working with USDA’s Digital Service, a recently created office focused on improving customer experiences.

Diaz said CDOs are working with USDA Digital Service, and its executive director Arianne Gallagher-Welcher, on ways to recruit, hire and develop the department’s IT workforce.

“We’ve partnered with her and her group, to see where we can find opportunities to really boost up the data and IT workforce together, where there are opportunities for collaboration and partnership, where there are opportunities just to pull resources together,” Diaz said.

The USDA Digital Service, he added, has launched a fellows program to bring IT and data experts into the agency

 

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