The stakes are high for DoD’s future civilian workforce

DoD’s approach to its civilian workforce is stale, but its next moves need to be the right ones if it wants to keep bringing in the best.

Last week, some of the Defense Department’s top officials harped on the same topic over and over: The Pentagon needs a talented civilian workforce to thrive.

“We have the ability to be a vanguard on the innovation workforce,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks during the Pentagon’s virtual Digital and AI Symposium. “We get better at both recruiting talent, but upskilling and reskilling and then retaining some of that talent, some talent we need to be really comfortable with it flowing in and out.”

Hicks honed in on the exact problem the Defense Business Board (DBB) pointed out in its recent study on civilian talent management.

DoD does not invest nearly enough in its civilian workforce and it’s to the detriment of the department as it moves to become a technological powerhouse in things like AI, software, space operations, and positioning, navigation and timing. People who are experts in those fields don’t pop up overnight; they need to trained and need mentorship from other talented people.

Right now, DoD is not doing that, the board says.

“In the past, DoD could simply acquire talent, but it can no longer simply be bought,” the members of the board wrote. “To get the right people with the right skill, the department needs effective talent management to ensure employees are upskilled to include the right policy and processes to prepare the workforce for the future.”

The DBB went so far as to say DoD is standing on a “capability burning platform.”

One former senior DoD personnel official told me on background that DoD is not successfully planning for the future of careers the way it does in the military.

Lieutenants are groomed to one day become general officers, and the funds show that.

The DBB report says DoD’s annual training costs for a GS-13 in the fourth estate, the mostly civilian-staffed agencies under the Pentagon’s purview, is a little over $1,000.

By contrast, the Army spends more than $8,500 in training a year on a major with seven years of service.

The former official said some parts of DoD are better than others. But the overall idea is that DoD is hiring someone to be a GS-15, not developing them.

What does DoD get from doing that?

It’s like the person who starts in the mailroom of a company and ends up as CEO. By working multiple jobs and getting handfuls of experience around the same organization, that person has a unique understanding of what the department needs instead of just being a cog.

The former official said it’s a growing experience and that DoD wants someone who truly knows an organization by being exposed to its different parts.

However, with people thinking about work differently and changing jobs at a higher rate than in the 1970s, is that dream even feasible?

The former official said yes, if DoD does it now and if it has the resources to do so. DoD’s mission is it’s biggest selling point and that brings in lifelong interest. The department just needs to cultivate it.

That isn’t to say DoD is doing nothing.

Hicks formed a Workforce Council last March to focus on developing talent within DoD. Until that gets further off the ground, DoD only has the leadership development within its agencies and, according to the DBB, those are not being utilized.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) wrote to the DBB last month with some critiques and recommendations on the report. The union noted that the expanded telework that cropped up as a response to the pandemic has shown to be an effective recruiting and retention tool.

Heinrich Erbes, a current Energy Department employee and a 16-year veteran of working as a civilian in DoD, wrote to Federal News Network in response to our original article about the DBB report.

“DBB forgot a very important question in the list of questions that included ‘Who do we have?’” Erbes wrote. “They forgot ‘Who is willing to move? And where are they willing to move to?’ Those have always been big questions for DoD civilian workforce management. It becomes additionally important because of the job classification stuff and merit promotions, and ‘billets’ and local funding, etc.”

Making the new telework situation the norm could help with that issue.

AFGE endorsed DBB’s recommendation to create an undersecretary for talent management and encouraged the role to help differentiate how civilians should be trained in comparison to service members.

“Effective talent management of the department’s civilian workforce cannot be collapsed into the same cultural preferences, practices and laws applicable to the military without affecting fully burdened costs and the ability to recruit and retain a quality workforce,” AFGE wrote. “There is a strong cultural bias favoring inflating job requirements unnecessarily to be like military. This tendency should be avoided because of these important distinctions. Your study does recognize that ‘one size does not fit all’ but the bias for unnecessarily inflating requirements similar to military should perhaps be more explicitly acknowledged as undesirable.”

The bottom line is there are a lot of factors dealing with civilian talent management and they all matter. The consensus is that DoD’s approach now is stale, but its next moves need to be the right ones if it wants to keep bringing in the best.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Daisy Thornton

Scientists are attempting to boost biodiversity in the oceans by seeding them with fake whale poop. They hope it will stimulate the reproduction of phytoplankton, which forms the base of the oceanic food chain.

Source: UK Natural History Museum

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