Entry-level tech talent the focus of GSA’s new Digital Corps fellowship

First there was the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, then 18F and the U.S. Digital Service.

Now in an effort to improve the pipeline of entry-level tech talent into the federal government, the Biden administration will create the U.S. Digital Corps, a two-year, paid fellowship for budding IT professionals.

The program is designed for entry-level talent with software engineering, data science, design, cybersecurity and other critical IT skills to launch their careers in public service and make a quick impact on government programs, the General Services Administration said Monday.

Fellows from undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as tech apprenticeships, boot camps and certificate and reskilling programs, are eligible to apply. Applicants don’t need to have prior full-time IT job experience, according to the Digital Corps’ new website.

Applications for the U.S. Digital Corps will open in the fall, and the agencies expect to hire 30 fellows to begin work this upcoming fiscal year.

Digital Corps fellows will work for one of a handful of “host” agencies, which include GSA, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the administration said.

GSA will match new Digital Corps at an agency based on their skillsets, where they’ll work on projects related to the COVID-19 response, racial equity, climate change, health care and economic recovery.

The U.S. Digital Corps will also launch a dedicated professional development and learning curriculum, designed to help fellows become better problem-solvers and “more effective in creating impact in government and other large organizations,” according to the program’s website.

“Fellows can expect to work in a variety of environments, including working independently or with teams and stakeholders, interviewing users and members of the public and collaborating across agencies,” the Digital Corps website reads. “Government technology and civic tech is a team sport, and we expect Digital Corps Fellows to be empathetic, collaborative, and mission-oriented.”

Agencies will also search for candidates who “represent the diversity of the United States, the administration said.

GSA’s Technology Transformation Services will run the new Digital Corps program, but the Office of Personnel Management, Office of Management and Budget, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will all support it.

“The federal government has so many important and exciting problems to solve — in science, in technology, in digital innovation — that affect the daily lives of millions of people across America,” Dr. Eric Lander, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Monday in a statement. “I’m thrilled to see the creation of the U.S. Digital Corps as a way to give early-career people from all backgrounds the opportunity to serve the country, make a difference and be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

The federal government already has several programs designed to bring in tech talent, but none are geared specifically toward entry-level positions.

The Professional Innovation Fellowship, for example, seeks mid-to-senior-level IT tech experts. Fellows work on agency projects for a year, with the option to renew for up to two.

That opportunity gap even became evident to young technologists themselves, prompting a group of Harvard University students to launch a non-profit and their own Civic Digital Fellowship program, which matches interns with federal agencies in exchange for a stipend.

The Biden administration said the new U.S. Digital Corps will complement existing term-limited roles, including the U.S. Digital Service, Presidential Management Fellowship and PIF programs.

“To provide best-in-class service delivery, agencies must have the right combination of workforce talent in place as their existing personnel accelerate towards retirement,” Clare Martorana, the federal chief information officer, said Monday in a statement. “The U.S. Digital Corps is a forward-looking solution that will build a deep bench for technology modernization and digital transformation across the federal government and meet the Biden administration’s goals of advancing federal IT and cybersecurity.”

Recent data shows the federal IT workforce is slowly aging. Nearly 16% of the federal IT workforce was age 60 or older last year, compared with 9.4% in 2007, according to the administration’s most recent budget request.

In contrast, nearly 3.2% of the federal IT workforce was between the ages of 20 and 29 in 2020, a slight improvement over the previous year’s numbers, when the age cohort sat below 3% among federal IT employees.

The overall federal workforce is doing only slightly better, with 20-to-29-year-olds making up 6.9% of federal employees. Employees over age 60 made up 14% of the overall federal workforce, according to the administration’s data.

Filling the pipeline of entry-level talent in the federal workforce has been a priority for the Biden administration, which recently finalized a long-awaited policy designed to help agencies recruit and hire more student interns without going through the usual job posting requirements.

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