VA pilots hands-on reskilling for its employees through ‘mastery teams’ initiative

Amid a governmentwide effort to reskill the federal workforce, the Department of Veterans Affairs has taken steps to ensure it has the workforce it needs for a data-centric future.

Speaking Wednesday at a Federal Computer Week data and analytics summit, Patricia Craighill, the director of DevOps implementation at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Information and Technology, said the VA, together with the U.S. Digital Service has stood up “mastery teams” aimed at giving its employees a hands-on learning experience for new skills.

Craighill said VA has about eight of these teams in the works. The first one kicks off at the beginning of June, and will focus on product management.

“The purpose is to give folks who want to learn a new skill the opportunity to go to training and then put it to work right away,” Craighill said. “If you just go to class, and then you don’t do anything with it, you forget it. So this opportunity is to take a class, work on a real project, and put it to work with mentors who have some experience, because that’s the only way you learn.”

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It’s the latest step in VA’s process of building a workforce for the future. About a year ago, the VA put together a working group that ran a complete analysis of its workforce to get a baseline understanding of what skills its employees have, and what skills the agency will need to hire for over the next few years.

The next step is to look at update the competency indicators for job openings and build new career plans. Beyond that, Craighill said the VA will have to create entirely new job descriptions for some of the positions most impacted by advances in data analytics and IT modernization.

The push toward upskilling comes at a time when the VA has undertaken an ambitious migration to a new electronic health record system that will integrate with what the Defense Department already has in place.

Amid those efforts, Craighill said the VA has discussed what positions displaced programmers can fill once it moves from its own Veterans Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) to Cerner’s Millennium system.

VA is also looking to consolidate some of the 600 applications running across the agency.

“We’re finding that there is duplication between the systems. They’re using similar data, and the data is being replicated. So we’re consolidating those data sources, and making them available through APIs back to the legacy systems and also out to the public where it’s appropriate,” Craighill said.

Reskilling has emerged as a relatively new concept in government. OMB, along with the CIO Council and the Education Department, launched the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy last November.

For its first class with 30 open seats, OMB received more than 1,500 applications. While the reskilling program remains in the pilot phase, that’s an acceptance rate of less than 2%, less than half of the acceptance rate for Harvard University.

“I’m interested in what OMB is doing too, but that’s not good news that they’re getting way more applicants than they can handle,” Craighill said, adding that she’d like to send some of “her best people” to the reskilling academy.

Citing the volume of applications for the reskilling academy’s first class, a senior administration official told Federal News Network in April that the CIO Council increased the inaugural class size from 25 to 30 students. Craighill said the VA faced questions in terms of the scope of its own reskilling pilot program.

“My original thought was that it would be a half a dozen people, just as a minimum viable product, to test out the idea, because it’s hard to find destination projects that will absorb people,” she said.

However, the VA’s partners at the U.S. Digital Service proposed opening classes up to 50 people at a time. By the end of the year, Craighill estimated a few hundred people will have gone through the coursework

As the Office of Management and Budget begins to sort through applicants for the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy second class, the Chief Human Capital Officers Council has asked agencies for an update on their own internal retraining efforts.

On Wednesday, the deadline for federal IT professionals to submit their applications for the reskilling academy, CHCO Council Executive Director Sara Ratcliff, in a memo, called on agency HR personnel and learning officers to submit their “best of breed” practices on reskilling and upskilling of their workforces.

“If appropriate, we are looking at possible wholesale changes and a technological ecosystem approach to mitigate any challenges you have identified,” Ratcliff wrote in the memo.

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