Census Bureau to launch data science reskilling pilot as template for other agencies

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As the Trump administration explores new ways to teach federal employees in-demand skills, the Census Bureau has taken the lead on this goal by launching its own data science reskilling program.

The Census Bureau, the largest federal statistical agency, hasn’t struggled with culture change as some agencies have in implementing the administration’s Federal Data Strategy and the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act.

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But when it comes to recruiting and retaining data scientists, or equipping people with the skills they need to work with data, Lisa Frid, Census’s workforce transformation program manager, said the bureau faces challenges that are common across government.

“We are competing with public, academic and private industry for the top talent, and it’s difficult, it’s hard, especially in the government,” Frid said Tuesday at Government Executive and NextGov’s “Be Bold” conference in Washington. “We don’t have the money and the funds. We just can’t attract the talent, and then once we do get them in the door, it’s hard to retain them. As our work evolves, the workforce must change with it.”

Instead of enrolling employees in a degree or certification course, the reskilling program puts workers through a combination of online coursework and in-person training. It also provides mentorship from data experts at the bureau, who will oversee work on an in-house data capstone project employees must complete before graduating from the reskilling program.

Frid said the capstone project would give employees “meaningful work” that would allow them to put their data skills to the test.

“The capstone is all about the opportunity for the Census Bureau to test out those processes that will benefit from the new data science techniques, and allows us to acquire the tools and software needed for our work,” she said.

Employees who will serve as mentors in the program also helped select the 50 applicants who will participate in the first cohort, which will begin coursework in January.

Frid told Federal News Network following the conference that those employees selected for the first cohort would be notified as soon as next week.

But with 2020 Census operations in full swing, the reskilling program, based on feedback from front-line managers, will only require employees to dedicate eight hours of their time over a six-month period.

Frid said the bureau has worked with the Office of Management and Budget and the Chief Information Officers Council to roll out this project. OMB, in turn, has looked at standing up similar training programs at other agencies.

Meanwhile, OMB already has plans to launch a data reskilling pilot as a spin-off from its cybersecurity reskilling academy.

Last week, Federal Deputy CIO Margie Graves said the data reskilling pilot would reskill front-line federal employees for data-centric jobs and make managers and executives more data-literate.

But one common stumbling block of reskilling efforts has been matching employees with jobs that align with their new skills.

One agency the bureau works with, for example, has “hundreds of open data science positions,” Frid said, but has had to reject otherwise successful candidates because they did not meet particular educational requirements.

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management is working on a governmentwide job series for data scientists after Census sent a proposal to OPM last summer, with more than 16 agencies co-signing onto the plan.

Since then, more than 40 agencies have endorsed the bureau’s proposal for a federal job series for data scientists.

Frid said that job series is crucial for another large agency that has invested in data science training opportunities, but whose trainees “don’t see a career path, because there’s no data scientist occupational series in the federal government.”

Meanwhile, Census has partnered with OPM on an occupational study that’s part of its work on the upcoming data scientist job series. Frid said those steps include building a coalition of federal partners and conducting focus groups.

“OPM is a few months into their occupational study right now, and we will continue to support them throughout their analysis and evaluation as it continues into 2020,” she said.

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