Human capital challenges facing the Biden administration

Each day the incoming Biden administration names more appointees. They'll soon be dealing with the career workforce. That workforce has some ongoing challenges ...

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Each day the incoming Biden administration names more appointees. They’ll soon be dealing with the career workforce. That workforce has ongoing challenges of its own, skills development, talent retention. As does the chief human capital officer function itself. For perspective Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the CHCO of the General Services Administration, Traci DiMartini.

Tom Temin: Each day the incoming Biden administration names more appointees. They’ll soon be dealing with the career workforce. That workforce has some ongoing challenges of its own — skill development, talent retention — as does the Chief Human Capital Officer function itself. For perspective, I spoke with the CHCO of the General Services Administration, Tracy DiMartini.

Traci DiMartini: For many years now, that particular occupation has been on [the Government Accountability Office] watch list as something that is being looked at as a critical needs occupation that the government has not done a terrific job investing in. At [the General Services Administration], I am incredibly lucky to have a workforce of 300 talented specialists. We take care of a workforce of 12,000 employees spread across 11 regions, including the National Capital Region here in DC. And we touch every facet of the government’s most important resource: our workforce. And it’s probably no shock to anyone that’s listening in and follows government trends. But employees have taken a beating over the past several years. And we are doing all we can to start with the human capital workgroup and our employees to make sure we are attracting and hiring and keeping and training the best possible employees all across government.

Tom Temin: And let’s map this across the gap that might exist between the skills that the agency needs and the skills first of all of the workforce that you have in place. How do you address that, because that seems to be a problem where the skills are decaying faster, the acquisition of skills is getting slower. And so agencies are a little bit of a catch up game here.

Traci DiMartini: Yes, because HR was traditionally a very transactional business, it was more just about processing paper, paying people, enrolling them in benefits. Really, at the heart of it, good human capital shops are strategic partners. We have to figure out what skills each agency needs and when they need to acquire them and how we get the right people into the right jobs. One of the things that makes GSA probably the best agency in government is we are so unique. We have so many in-demand occupations under the GSA umbrella, we’re the perfect laboratory to see how to make this work. Everything from cybersecurity and IT specialist to acquisition specialist to then other topics or other occupations that people don’t think about such as horticulturist, or architects. We have the whole range of services. And what we’re trying to do at GSA is think about how we hire differently, how we train differently, because we’re now in the 21st century, and people are going to not go into the building five days a week, they’re not going to come to DC, we are going to be spread across the United States. And one thing we’ve learned during this pandemic is we can do that without missing a beat because our productivity has been off the charts since March of 2020. And we are really seeing another year ahead of us that’s going to show more of the same: people staying engaged, people getting hired and sticking with the agency and doing what we do best, which is serving the business needs of the federal government.

Tom Temin: And talk about how you assess the skills development that is needed. And I’ll just make an example say of acquisition. And over the years that has shifted greatly from products and hardware to much more service buying, as what federal agencies buy through GSA’s vehicles is more and more service oriented, or the collapse of the GSA multiple award schedules into one big schedule. These result in needs for different skills among people in that occupation, just as one example. How do you sense what’s going to be needed in the future and start to move people to what you will need based on where they are now?

Traci DiMartini: I think that’s a great example. And I think this goes back to what I said at the beginning, which is really figuring out how to change the mindset of the federal government and specifically employment in federal government. Gone are the days where you come in and you do one job and you do it for 30 years. We have to do a better job of explaining to people that you’re going to have to constantly be training and retraining for the job that you have to meet the demands of the work ahead of you now and not 10 or 15 years ago. So with regards to acquisition, much like human resources, it’s changed from purely transactional to buying goods and services to being more strategic. So we need individuals with critical thinking skills, with resilience, the ability to adapt and figure out how to make things happen, not only in a global market but nationwide. We also need to have hiring managers that are truly understanding the skills needed in the people that they hire. It may not just be looking for people that understand one type of system or have a specific degree, but people that are willing to be trained multiple times across their career and are willing to be flexible and resilient and grow into the jobs that are needed and not the ones they were necessarily hired for.

Tom Temin: And in some ways, I guess that complicates the hiring process because if you know you need this specific skill for this specific job, it’s easier to screen people. But if you’re looking for people that can, say, change jobs or change skills every couple years, 18 months, whatever it might be, that’s a little bit harder quality, I think to assess in people when you are bringing in talent. Fair enough?

Traci DiMartini: That is very fair. But that is also why it’s not just about the talent that we’re hiring, it’s really about focusing on the training of managers. We have to make sure federal managers understand that their people are their strongest asset. And when, say, they’re looking to reskill them for a certain job, they have to be able to provide that training, to mentor them, to give them specific instructions, and set them up for success. I think that’s where there’s been a disconnect, particularly in the last 10 or 12 years, where you see training budgets are the first things to be cut in any agency. When we went through sequestration, gosh, it’s like seven years ago now, seven to eight years ago, the first thing that everyone did was cut their training budgets, and we’re gonna pay for that mistake for years to come. Because you have to continually invest and reinvest in your workforce if you’re going to keep their skills up to date and sharp. And I’m very passionate about leadership training, I think the government needs to start focusing on hiring people for their leadership ability and their management skills, and not just their technical skills. So we actually can break through what I think is one of the things that’s been holding us back. And that is focusing on very strong good leadership in the civil service.

Tom Temin: And in the sense that leadership itself needs to be trained from time to time and hiring managers need new skills, and it’s not just an HR function, as you pointed out, but it’s really spread across the different missions, who ultimately approve the people they hire. Are there any technological or short cut, cost-cutting types of methodologies, so that when you don’t have to say anymore that you have training budgets got cut, when training used to imply going somewhere sitting in a hotel, and having an expensive course giver?

Traci DiMartini: That is actually one of the best things that has happened to the government this year, I think, actually, the entire workforce, private sector and public, is we’ve learned how to embrace technology, and to do things differently. So it’s not about as you said, sitting in a conference room for five days, listening to an instructor drone on. We’re learning how to use Zoom, or Google Chats to have connections across the country with colleagues, and learn what they’re doing and how to apply it to our workplace. We’re really big fans of coaching at GSA. And you can connect people with an executive coach from their living room. They can dial up and have those conversations. We’re also looking at ways to embrace the cohort approach, which is getting executives or leaders from different branches of GSA together to figure out how to solve common problems and make the agency stronger as a whole. These are things that I don’t think we would have given much thought to before the pandemic, because everyone was used to just signing up for classes and going away for three days or five days. Now we understand training is something that’s continual, and can be done from anywhere.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I was gonna say that continuous idea probably really plays in big here, especially in the upskilling, or re-skilling kind of milieu because people need to be continuously re-skilled or upskilled, given the conditions you’ve described, and how missions change and technologies change and what you’re giving and serving up to the federal government at large is always changing. So that would seem to be a good way to do that efficiently.

Traci DiMartini: It is and it also points to other areas that we can focus on, on how to train people. So again, since March of 2020, we’ve been onboarding brand new employees to federal service, some of whom have yet to step into their home agencies. So we’re learning how to connect and train with them without ever formally meeting them in person, because it is an investment to make a hire. And it’s our duty to groom that workforce to stay. And I always tell my CHCO colleagues when we talk, it’s not about making people stay at one agency for their entire career. I want them to stay in the government. And we’re just going to do ourselves justice if we continually train and invest in the employees we hire, because then we’re gonna have a stronger federal workforce no matter what agency they work in.

Tom Temin: Tracy DiMartini is the Chief Human Capital Officer at the General Services Administration. There’s much more to the interview, which will air it in its entirety as part of a series on talent and skills development on Friday, February 4 at noon. Check out our webinar Tuesday, January 26. That’ll be 2pm at

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