It’s no secret that there is a universal staffing problem across the federal sector — critical positions remain unfilled, agencies are having a hard time attracting and retaining talent, as well as developing that talent, particularly for jobs in IT, cybersecurity, DevSecOps and other areas requiring a high degree of technical skill. To this end, 7 out of 10 government IT leaders view continuing IT skills gaps as having medium to high impact on their ability to deliver on their agencies’ missions.
IT leaders in the public sector face the same problems as the private sector — the same budget constraints, the same supply chain issues, and the same cybersecurity challenges — so why do the current federal-sector issues seem more severe? Because they are. In our current times of zero unemployment, many federal agencies remain “stuck” by continuing to use the same HR strategies they did a decade or more earlier. These agencies must not only change how they define the problem, but shift in how they solve it as well.
In order to fix the current staffing issues within the federal government, it’s important to understand why they exist in the first place. The first problem is the loss of skilled talent at the federal level, either through a failure at the recruiting and hiring stages, or due to job attrition. Federal agencies are notoriously slow to hire and even slower to fire, making them less agile and less attractive to today’s up-and-coming top technical talent.
There is also an incredible pay gap in play between federal employees and private-sector employees. The average pay for a U.S. private-sector employee increased by 38% between 2009 and 2020, but federal civilian pay only rose by 15%. Last year, The Federal Salary Council released data that showed that federal employees earn about 24% less than their private-sector counterparts. So it should come as no surprise that the public sector is losing key talent to private companies.
Long gone are the days of “if you build it, they will come,” particularly in hiring and retaining IT and cybersecurity talent. In order to attract and keep staff in today’s uber-competitive employment market, federal agencies must shift their priorities and focus on these three best practices to improve the speed of hiring and retention of IT and cybersecurity talent:
Create agility and accountability. Evaluate what needs to change within your agency and create an action accountability plan to ensure it does actually change. This includes assessing the cost and determinant of antiquated hiring processes and technologies and making the appropriate upgrades. If the last several years have taught us anything, it’s that people expect goods and services quickly — from ordering a grocery delivery to streaming the latest hit show to even buying a car — and this need for expediency does not stop at work. No one wants to spend months interviewing for one job, for example. The government has to get better (and faster) at how it acquires and retains talent.
Create in-depth training and development programs. Developing and training a deep talent pool should be at the top of every federal agency hiring manager’s list. Today’s evolving, complex technologies and corresponding threat landscape mean that IT employees in particular must keep their skills up to date. Not to mention, if you aren’t investing in your workers’ development and skills, chances are they are looking to move to an organization that does. Recruiting world-class IT candidates means offering continual training, from certifications to internships to scholarships and grants. It isn’t a matter of just throwing money at the problem, but rather also investing in talent development and retention.
Obtain the right hiring manager. It sounds simple, but the hiring manager is often the first line of defense and the face of your organization. Strong talent attracts strong talent. Federal agencies have a reputation for being slow, particularly when it comes to communication. Poor speed of communication back to qualified applicants in the interview-to-hire process may result in losing that qualified candidate. Federal agencies must first ensure that they have top-notch HR people on staff before they can grow their staff, because without the right people to handle recruitment and assessment, you’re already running behind. And the saying is true: You’re only as good as your weakest link.
If federal agencies continue to implement antiquated hiring processes and technologies for their own convenience, as opposed to the convenience of the in-demand IT talent they’re looking to hire, they will lose that talent to the private sector every time. Such prevailing practices and mindsets must evolve in order for agencies to be competitive with private companies for top human resources.
Joe Thiel is president of Meridian Technologies, an IT workforce and consulting services provider that helps organizations in the commercial market and federal government agencies to fuel enterprise transformation.