A major IT skills gap exists in government—learning from other sectors may help.

Despite direct investments into remote work, cybersecurity and digital infrastructure, the federal government still faces challenges in recruiting and retaining a qualified IT workforce. The major talent shortage in cybersecurity, exacerbated by the pandemic, puts federal agencies at risk.

Emerging technologies that promote government modernization, and the automation of service delivery vital to reach the American public, have created an urgency around bridging the tech talent gap. The federal government also needs a diverse IT...

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Despite direct investments into remote work, cybersecurity and digital infrastructure, the federal government still faces challenges in recruiting and retaining a qualified IT workforce. The major talent shortage in cybersecurity, exacerbated by the pandemic, puts federal agencies at risk.

Emerging technologies that promote government modernization, and the automation of service delivery vital to reach the American public, have created an urgency around bridging the tech talent gap. The federal government also needs a diverse IT workforce, an issue reflected by the burgeoning gender and racial diversity gap among high-growth tech jobs across the country.

Focus on career development and upskilling

In a 2021 survey conducted among chief information officers from federal agencies and contractors, 32% of respondents agreed that a deepening IT skills gap had a significant impact on their agency’s ability to deliver services effectively. Just one year earlier, the Federal Chief Information Officers Council revealed there are 4.5 federal IT professionals aged 60 or older for every one IT professional below the age of 30. A lack of skills development has led to stagnation among older workers; the resulting silos in organizations drive new IT recruits to look to private employers for better mobility. A real challenge to attract and retain talent in federal IT positions is that the pay lags 22% on average behind the commercial sector.

There’s an opportunity to address both issues; federal workers should be provided with upskilling in order to both match their expertise with today’s IT demands, and create the upward career growth sought by a newer workforce. In one survey, 73% of workers over the age of 45 said that new training helped them to advance their careers.

Emphasize diversity and access when hiring

Recent workforce research from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers has discussed the theme of diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring practices. According to an April 2022 report, 57% of the U.S. workforce is made up of women, but less than one-quarter of technology-related positions are held by women — women of color hold only 4% of those roles. In the same report, less than 25% of tech professionals reported that people of color were significantly represented in leadership roles in their companies.

Federal agencies must clearly commit to closing the gender and racial gaps in their divisions, at the risk of losing workers to other sectors. Considering that the vast majority of job seekers today view DEI as an important factor for employment, multiple insights also reveal that greater diversity and representation leads to higher-performing teams. Federal leaders should critically assess their workplace for diversity in recruitment practices, measure pay and benefits gaps, and address existing biases. Creating spaces where employees can safely provide feedback to support agencies’ DEI mission helps foster inclusion in the workplace and lead to better worker retention.

Recognize the value of quality non-degree credentials

Current hiring practices create barriers for candidates to apply for IT positions in government, and federal guidelines around degrees and experience often narrow the pool of job candidates. Private employers are far more progressive in developing pathways for workers to attain tech careers in such a high-growth sector, with many companies emphasizing skills over inflated degree requirements to fill open roles. By removing barriers to well-paying jobs, such hiring practices tap into the millions of working age adults who have at least a high school diploma, but may earn less than $25,000 a year.

Sector-based training, where people are trained for existing jobs in high-demand sectors that pay well for workers, often without post-secondary degrees, offers an efficient talent solution. Rigorous evaluations of such programs have found lasting, positive impacts on participant earnings and life outcomes. These programs generate transferable skills and credentials, and low program costs reduce employment barriers into tech roles, particularly for women and people of color. This helps to assist in closing the IT talent gap, but also the overall income and diversity gap that exists in tech. Partnerships between training providers and employers, including contractors, create a unique opportunity to produce custom curricula in which current and new members of the workforce are trained, certified, then referred to the open roles where their IT skills are most in-demand.

Widening workforce recruitment to participants of these programs offers a way to begin filling the estimated 700,000 open IT positions across the public and private sector. The federal government needs an agile, robust IT workforce, and the talent gap can be bridged through upskilling, inclusive recruitment practices, and looking beyond degree requirements to qualifying credentials. Emphasizing these elements in workforce planning can better equip federal agencies with workers who can respond to the changing landscape of technology and security.

Jasmine Miller is chief training officer at Per Scholas.

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