Agencies need to close gaps in their recruiting, retention efforts

Erica Ford, a principal for the people advisory services at EY, said agencies have a rare opportunity to reimagine how they recruit and retain workers by highli...

Biden administration officials often talk about this being an inflection point for technology, for the workforce and for government as a whole.

While the term inflection point may be a nice buzzword talking point, it’s clear agencies are taking advantage the societal and cultural change brought on by the pandemic and the expectations of the multi-generational workforce.

The winds of change across government are blowing strong.  Whether it’s the General Services Administration’s new workplace innovation lab where agencies can test out new office space set ups or the Homeland Security Department’s cyber talent management program to bring on this specific and hard to find expertise, agencies are transforming their approaches to recruitment, retention and engagement.

These and other agency efforts are helping to rebuild the confidence and swagger of federal employees.

Erica Ford, a principal for the people advisory services at EY, said agencies can successfully navigate the current and future work environments by closing the gaps in their workforce through a combination of approaches.

“First things first, make it about your mission and what’s most important. That’s really going to guide where you make those investments. If there’s something with regard to particular technology or modernization, that’s going to tell you that you need to focus on what are those technical skills we need to get in the door,” Ford said on the discussion Government Modernization Unleashed: Workforce. “That makes it easier for recruiters who are working in the human resources department to focus their time. Now, when their time is focused, they really need the overall organization to have their back because your HR folks are the people that are talking to the business side every day. That’s going to really help your HR specialists.”

Employee experience matters

The ability of agencies to recruit new employees, especially for hard to find positions like cybersecurity, can become both easier because of the remote work option, but also more complex for several reasons.

Ford said agencies need to be careful not to create two different environments for employees – those remote and those in the office.

“One of the things that we’ve seen people focus on more and think about is that employee experience. No employee within an organization should have an experience that is of less quality than a peer or another colleague,” she said. “However, with both of their jobs, they may have to show up differently for the mission. That doesn’t mean that the way that that person’s experiences is somehow less valued or less fun because they don’t have the flexibility, if you will, of someone that gets to stay at home. The other piece in terms of the complexity was really around ways of working. There’s been some concern, from some government folks that I’ve talked to, that the social skills are different now. That’s been some stress, I think, in some of the environments.”

Ford added the equity of workplace piece includes everything from the WiFi and other technologies to more simple things like coffee, filtered water and ensuring a comfortable work space.

Understanding where an agency can address certain workplace and workforce challenges also opens the door to improving the recruitment process.

Benefit from the tech recession

Ford said agencies have a huge opportunity to take advantage of the so-called “tech recession.”

“I think during the recruiting process it’s about leveling with people, and what makes it hard sometimes is there’s this intimidation about the compensation. But also, sometimes it’s just really telling the story of what the day-to-day is like,” Ford said. “If you can talk to a cyber guy or cyber girl who just left one of those organizations and is looking for a job, really sitting down with him or her and tell them what the benefits of mission focused work are, that’s really compelling.”

Over the years, agencies have struggled to sell their mission or the value the employee can bring to the organization.

“Agencies should really take the time to explain how does the mission really show up on a day-to-day basis for a constituent? What is the tie between what I do and what the mission of the organization is?” she said. “The other piece that folks have to think about when they’re telling stories is that the generations are so different. When you are talking about mission with a 25-year-old, you may focus on different parts of your mission and tell that story in a compelling way. Really factoring in those generational differences and perspectives to determine how you tell your story is also really important.”

And it becomes an even bigger factor as agencies seek to recruit and hire a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Ford said agencies have shown a willingness to rethink their hiring processes and invest in certain initiatives to get the information to potential employees in new ways.

“One thing that we found is that having a true set of data that you can trust is beneficial. It’s also a challenge across HR systems. So when you’re dealing with old, antiquated systems and you’re thinking about modernization, we’re starting to see people really consider the need to modernize their systems because the data piece just holds them back so often,” she said. “The other piece that we’re also seeing is a move to see what processes may be broken. So by that, I mean, there’s complexities in the federal government, that make hiring more difficult that could be fixed. For example, one of my state and local clients, we worked with them to see how they could make day of offers at one of their job fairs. It took an incredible amount of approvals to get those done. Once we got the approvals, they were for only certain critical jobs, but it was successful.”

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