For years, the discussion around federal IT modernization has focused on the technology aspect, as agencies put in maximum effort to keep pace with the speed of innovation.
In the past decade, we’ve seen agencies like the IRS lay the groundwork for a transition from legacy technology to new, cloud-based technologies such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence. These agencies are developing new IT systems that are better suited to meet the demands of today by enabling these emerging technologies. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for government services has never been greater, and it’s incumbent on agencies to provide those services in a prompt manner with efficiency and the highest level of customer experience possible.
However, federal IT transformation has another issue looming that has little to do with technology. It is the current state of the federal workforce, and what is expected to happen over the next few years due to the combination of employees reaching retirement age as well as the “great resignation” in the wake of COVID. Though the pandemic has slowed, the effects will be felt for years to come.
It is estimated that nearly 30% of the government workforce will hit retirement age within the next two years, while it’s also estimated that roughly 25% of public employees are considering switching jobs.
The country’s aging population, and its impact on the workforce, has been dubbed the Silver Tsunami as more and more people reach retirement age. We are currently seeing those impacts across the federal workforce, as the number of federal employees reaching retirement age continues to increase and the pandemic has only acted to accelerate retirement.
While this wave of retirements has been forecast for years due to the Baby Boomer population, the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a similar, yet different, exodus from the federal government. This is happening for younger employees who are re-evaluating their careers after the pandemic and switching jobs, if not outright leaving their professions.
In either case, it results in federal employees leaving and taking their years of experience and expertise with them. This “brain drain” phenomenon is dampening the impact of new technologies because the workforce is not being replenished at the same rate of people leaving. When these employees leave, even if there is a solid plan for transition, the agency loses the experience and the wisdom gained. Often times that knowledge is required for legacy systems that are essential to the agency’s mission.
When an agency embraces IT modernization projects, it’s not merely about the technology. It’s the deep understanding of the people and the business processes that will make these projects successful. Applying technology without truly understanding the mission and the desired outcomes will ultimately affect the programs and impact for the citizens they serve.
The way forward through training and mentoring
Training transfers knowledge. Mentoring transfers experience. The next generation of federal employees will not miraculously appear. For agencies to properly fill their ranks with new technology leaders and subject matter experts, they need to be developed. Innovation is the confluence of people and leading-edge technology to drive better outcomes.
Agencies and federal contractors can replenish their ranks through training programs with local colleges and universities where participants can gain specific job training for these highly technical roles.
To support government innovation, the IRS and Maximus have collaborated with institutions, including Prince George’s Community College, to prioritize recruiting and retaining ambitious graduates uniquely suited to serve the IT needs of the IRS. These college partnerships contribute to the agency’s talent pool as a way to replenish the pipeline as retirements hit the workforce. Everyone who was hired and successfully completed the program is currently working at IRS. They are on a career ladder and have assigned mentors.
One IRS employee said of a recently hired programmer, “She is extremely dependable, collaborative, responsive and very thorough. Every single day, she is a tremendous asset.”
It’s critical for agencies to identify and cultivate new talent from higher education, as this partnership highlights. Agencies must be proactive and aggressive in hiring new employees to improve their agency’s ability to meet its mission. These type of partnerships provide an avenue to fill gaps in the current workforce and develop employees who can positively contribute to agencies for years to come. It is creating the future workforce.
IT modernization is about laying the foundation for the future, and that includes a talented workforce that can properly implement and utilize the latest, emerging technologies. Agencies have seen the most success when partnering with industry to further innovation and identify new, better ways to transform its workforce into one that can modernize and do so continuously.
Government and industry training programs can be effective for any agency, regardless of their mission. These programs are more than the traditional “butts in seats” model of filling out a workforce. It is about developing employees that can contribute and evolve into the future leaders of an agency’s technology infrastructure.
The American workforce is changing due to aging and the pandemic, which has caused major reorganizations for agencies. New employees need to quickly understand the mission and the environment, with the ability to apply technology innovation in new and exciting ways.
Training and mentoring the next generation sounds like a steep challenge. And it is. But more importantly, it’s the perfect opportunity for agencies and industry partners to come together to train a nation of eager employees looking for more fulfilling careers.
Tricia Belman is senior vice president for Maximus.