EPA aims to please employees with short-term projects

For the agency, the Skills Marketplace offers a new way to get work done without more staff or resources. For employees, it provides a chance to build skills an...

It’s not that Janet Weiner doesn’t like her job. But one role can’t fulfill all career ambitions. As an attorney-adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Weiner worried that her litigation skills were becoming rusty.

For that reason, she jumped at the chance to join the agency’s suspension and debarment team, albeit for just one day a week. Every Thursday for a year, she works as a debarment counsel.

In the past, this type of opportunity would have required Weiner to take a break from her regular job for a rotational assignment. But this project, offered through the EPA’s fast-growing Skills Marketplace, is meant to be done on the side. While she has more work than before, Weiner views it as an investment in her career.

Janet Weiner, an attorney/adviser in the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, is brushing up on her ligitation skills by working as a debarment counsel. (EPA)

“I like my current job very much. But I also like to keep my skills current and learn a new area,” she said. “Suspension and debarment is a growing area of practice in federal agencies. It can only help me to have that kind of background.”

EPA counting on skills marketplace to improve on-the-job satisfaction

The Skills Marketplace resembles a dating website in that it pairs employees interested in expanding their skills through short-term projects with managers in need of extra hands. While Weiner chooses to work with the suspension and debarment team in its office so that she can bounce ideas off of the experienced litigators, the projects are designed to be done virtually.

EPA began working three years ago with its labor unions on the concept for the marketplace. At the time, the agency suffered under declining budgets and a hiring freeze. Employees felt stuck in their jobs, said Deputy Chief of Staff John Reeder.

“We wanted to create a more nimble workforce. Employees could try new things, have a little more freedom to move around the agency, get experience, meet new people and develop their skills,” he said. “At the same time, [the Skills Marketplace] provides the agency the benefit of additional resources on priority work that needed to be done.”

It is not EPA’s attempt to “do more with less,” a theme often discussed in an era of constrained resources. If the program were more about stretching budgets than developing employees’ skills, it would not be so successful, Reeder said.

The EPA is not alone in its need to keep employees happy, especially as the nation’s economy improves and more employers have jobs to fill. The Obama administration has urged agencies to focus on employee engagement, as measured by the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Senior leaders will be accountable for their employees’ on-the-job satisfaction, according to President Barack Obama’s budget plan for fiscal 2016.

How EPA did it

Weiner said her office was buzzing about the Skills Marketplace because it seemed to offer the rare opportunity to work across program divisions in the agency. The EPA has marketed the program heavily to its employees with a fair, webinars and demonstrations.

While the EPA created the marketplace to increase employees’ satisfaction, managers propose the work and select team members. Some of the projects are new and innovative. Others are must-dos that managers haven’t been able to get off the ground because they lack the resources or skills, Reeder said.

“We did communicate generally that they shouldn’t be projects that are nice to do, or are someone’s favorite hobbies,” he said. “They should be projects that need to be done to accomplish the mission of the organization.”

A frequent user of Facebook and Twitter in her personal life, Wing Yeung jumped at the opportunity to help the agency’s social media team analyze its data when she saw the project posted on the Marketplace’s Web portal. After the project ended, she applied for a detail assignment in another communications office. She believes she would not have had that opportunity without the Skills Marketplace assignment on her resume.

Program Analyst Wing Yeung is pursuing a certificate in social media after completing a related project through EPA’s Skills Marketplace. (EPA)

Now back at her home base, as a program analyst in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Yeung is working on a certificate in social media. She has helped spread the word about the Marketplace to other employees.

“I’d recommend it to people who want to develop their skills or just step outside their comfort zone and be adventurous,” she said.

Reeder hopes the EPA will become known, both inside and outside the agency, for giving employees the type of career-changing experience that Yeung has had, starting with its Skills Marketplace.

“I want it to be so institutionalized that it’s viewed as a real positive on resumes to have this experience and show you’ve worked in different parts of the agency and know people across the agency, making you a more effective leader,” he said. “Success also would be other agencies adopting similar ideas, because they see that it’s working here at EPA and they want to copy and emulate what we have.”

The EPA is working with the Office of Personnel Management to lead a governmentwide initiative called GovConnect, which serves as a forum for agencies to share thoughts on agile workplace models like the skills marketplace, said Noha Gaber, EPA’s acting director of Internal Communications.

“There are many agencies starting to develop similar programs. We’re working with them to share our knowledge, our experience and our journey as they go through the process,” she said. That’s phase one of the GovConnect project. Phase two envisions a governmentwide platform that lets managers select employees from multiple agencies for projects that require diverse skills and knowledge.


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