OPM pitches federal IT as new career path for workers hit by big tech layoffs

The federal government is looking at a sector-wide shakeup across tech companies as an opportunity to bring a new generation of IT talent into public service.

After a year of across-the-board layoffs at companies including Twitter, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft, the Office of Personnel Management is co-leading a virtual job fair on Jan. 18, along with several other public-sector organizations.

More than 50 federal, state and local government agencies are participating in the job fair,...

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The federal government is looking at a sector-wide shakeup across tech companies as an opportunity to bring a new generation of IT talent into public service.

After a year of across-the-board layoffs at companies including Twitter, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft, the Office of Personnel Management is co-leading a virtual job fair on Jan. 18, along with several other public-sector organizations.

More than 50 federal, state and local government agencies are participating in the job fair, and at least 1,100 individuals, as of Jan. 12, have registered.

Those agencies include the Veterans Affairs Department, which began recruiting private-sector IT workers late last year, and the IRS, which is looking to rebuild its workforce and modernize its legacy IT over the next decade, after receiving $80 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Other agencies looking to hire include NASA, a longtime top workplace on the Partnership for Public Service’s  Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, and the State Department, which is investing in its data analytics and emerging technology capabilities as part of its diplomacy modernization initiative.

OPM, as part of the job fair rollout, has launched a new federal jobs board for IT talent on USAJobs.gov. The jobs board at tech.usajobs.gov centralizes federal IT job postings and will help candidates sort through positions.

“If you’re passionate about making our country a better place, then public service is the place for you. As the tech sector continues to see layoffs, the federal government is going to make a concerted effort to attract these individuals,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in a statement.

But OPM is looking at the upcoming job fair not just as a one-off hiring event, but as an opportunity to introduce a new generation to the benefits of public service, and as a turning point for the agency to reinvent the federal hiring experience.

OPM, in the near term, is helping agencies put together a compelling recruitment pitch for private-sector tech workers to join government service, and standing up a new Hiring Experience (HX) Group focused on rethinking the federal hiring experience for the long term.

Kyleigh Russ, a senior advisor for OPM’s new HX Group, and the co-founder of Govern for America, a nonprofit group that helps develop the next generation of public-sector leaders, said in a recent interview that the federal government does have an immediate need to fill IT positions.

Over the past three years, agencies posted about 2,400 jobs for federal IT positions on USAJobs.gov that have gone unfilled.

“That’s a lot of roles, and that’s leaving a critical shortage across government, and we really want to use this fair as a way to fill some of those jobs,” Russ said.

Jessica Watson, chief experience officer and co-founder of U.S. Digital Response, an organization that’s been bringing tech-savvy volunteers onto public-sector IT modernization projects since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said many within the tech workforce are ready for a change in their careers, and may be open to a job in federal IT — even if that career trajectory wasn’t previously on their radar.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t try to do something, knowing that there are tens of thousands of people who are going through a really big time of uncertainty in their career. At least some of them are probably questioning, ‘Is technology, with a capital T — big tech — the place for me?’” Watson said.

U.S. Digital Response is one of several nonprofit groups behind the Tech to Gov job fair.

The governmentwide job fair builds on an idea VA’s Office of Information Technology implemented at the end of last year. VA OIT announced in December that it would actively recruit laid-off tech workers to fill about 1,000 agency vacancies. The agency is specifically looking to fill positions in software development, product management and cybersecurity.

A VA spokeswoman told Federal News Network on Tuesday that VA OIT has reduced its vacancies to 744 positions after “we completely changed our talent acquisition approach.”

The spokeswoman said VA OIT currently has 178 pending new hires that await onboarding, and 361 more candidates in the pre-selection stage.

VA Assistant Secretary for IT and Chief Information Officer Kurt DelBene told reporters last month that about 50,000 private-sector tech employees received layoff notices in November, and about 100,000 total tech workers were laid off in 2022.

Russ highlighted the work of VA OIT and its Veterans Experience Office as a place in government committed to modernizing the way the agency meets its mission.

“We know that investing in digital service teams and supporting them from the beginning can really yield some amazing results,” Russ said.

VA in August 2021 launched its Health and Benefits mobile app that allows veterans to view upcoming medical appointments, check their claims and download important documents from their smartphones. The app recently reached a million downloads, and has more than 500,000 monthly users.

“VA has really doubled down to ensure that technology partners are in the conversations and really true partners with business lines to ensure that they’re designing with their customers — like veterans, caregivers, family members — to deliver a really modern VA experience,” Russ said.

DelBene said in a recent statement that the Labor Department’s December 2022 jobs report shows the tech industry is still shedding jobs.

“Tech professionals who want to level up should join us on the frontlines of VA’s digital transformation,” DelBene said.

OPM rethinking federal hiring tools

Russ said that OPM, in preparation for the hiring fair, is helping agencies refresh their recruiting strategies and understand the full scope of the special hiring authorities available to them to onboard tech hires quickly.

But beyond addressing an immediate need to fill vacant IT positions, OPM sees the event as an opportunity to introduce private-sector tech workers to the benefits of public service — even if they’re not considering leaving their current jobs yet.

“We’re also looking at this as an opportunity fair; so not just a job fair in the traditional sense, but as an opportunity open house, that we can talk about what it means to be a federal employee — what it means to serve — to think about how can we bring in some of this talent now, but also how can we go back to that talent in one, five, ten years, so that we can say, ‘Hey, remember when we met and you were interested in this? Why don’t you come in for a tour of service? We maybe didn’t have a job for you then, but we do now, and we’re really excited to engage,'” Russ said.

OPM, as part of the long-term work led by its Hiring Experience Group, is looking to scale up Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments (SME-QAs) beyond agency-by-agency pilots.

The SME-QA process, developed by the U.S. Digital Service, brings subject-matter experts into the early stages of the federal hiring process to assess applicants’ qualifications for technical positions. Agencies have relied on the SME-QA process to hire experts in IT, customer experience and data science.

“If you’re a subject matter expert, an IT product manager in government, we want to make sure that you are helping to choose what really makes an IT product manager qualified in federal government,” Russ said.

OPM and USDS have spent years looking “under the hood” of the federal hiring process, and have seen the SME-QA process consistently leads to higher-quality candidates and filling more vacant positions. The agencies found that prior to the SME-QA pilots, only half of the federal positions for technical experts posted to USAJobs.go led to a new hire.

OPM’s new HX group is also looking to scale up shared hiring certificates across agencies. In practice, the shared certs have allowed multiple program offices within an agency to hire from the same shortlist of qualified candidates their HR office previously compiled to fill positions.

Russ said the shared certs will help agencies speed up the time-to-hire, and reduce the frustration of qualified applicants having to apply to similar job positions over and over again.

“Instead of an applicant having to apply to a job at EPA, [the Education Department] and OPM over and over again … if you’re applying for an IT product manager role, let’s have you apply once, and then everybody who’s hiring for that role can select off of the people who are qualified for that role,” she said.

More stability, greater impact

Watson said a career switch into public service may seem more appealing to a labor pool now dealing with layoffs, reeling from sector-wide burnout or having seen their teams decimated by layoffs.

“They are seeing the layoffs happening, having that same moment of realization of, ‘Oh, I’m not sure if this is where I want to be.’ And I think government just has this amazing ability for folks to be able to have a real tangible impact in their community that I think a lot of folks are really craving right now,” she said.

The federal government can’t match what top tech companies pay their employees, but it may soon be able to narrow the pay discrepancy.

The VA led several agencies in submitting a Special Salary Rate for federal IT hires last October. VA expects OPM will finalize approval of the SSR later in January. The SSR for cyber and IT employees, once approved, will be a major first step governmentwide to address a systemic workforce shortage.

OPM said it has been working with several agencies on the SSR, which “will make the federal government more competitive with the private sector for tech talent.”

Michelle Amante, vice president for federal workforce programs at the Partnership for Public Service, another organization behind the Tech to Gov job fair, said most tech workers interested in joining the federal workforce are clear-eyed about the prospect of a pay cut, but may see other benefits to public service.

“They may not make as much, but then they don’t have to worry about getting laid off,” Amante said. “There are tradeoffs to any job you take. So you may make more money in the private sector [but] there’s less stability. There’s better work-life balance, there’s the draw to the mission in the public sector.”’

In addition to offering health care and retirement benefits that are hard to come by at private tech companies, the federal government is promoting its unique mission to tech workers.

“You can impact this country and the American people in ways you cannot do in the private sector, by coming to work for the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Veteran Affairs. There’s a direct link to helping people. Making that tie to the mission, agencies always seem to do that well, but hammering that home with prospective applicants is really important,” Amante said.

Russ said tech workers are responding well to the opportunity to work on projects that directly benefit the public.

“If you want to make a true change at a systemic level, not Band-Aid fixes at the system-wide level, you’re going to impact literally hundreds of millions of people,” Russ said. “If you can dream of a job, the federal government probably has it … You can help land someone on the moon, you can help people have access to clean drinking water. You could do anything.”

Russ said the federal government offers tech workers an opportunity to work on projects with a direct benefit to the public, while offering an improved work-life balance.

“People in government work really, really hard. But also government does a really good job of managing [that] when it’s time to sign off, then you should do that. I know from my experience, that that is not necessarily true in the private sector,” she said.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the need for tech expertise in government.

U.S. Digital Response, for example, connected volunteers to IT projects that helped individuals successfully apply for unemployment benefits and help families obtain federal rental assistance to remain in their homes.

Many of USDR’s tech volunteers sign up to help on a project for about two-to-three months. Watson said these projects also gave tech workers an understanding of how government programs work.

“Many of our folks who come and just volunteer end up themselves changing careers and moving into the government space,” Watson said.

Amante said tech workers respond well to solving problems that have a major impact, and may look at overhauling decades-old IT systems at agencies as a fulfilling opportunity.

“Sell it as an opportunity for this person: You can come and be part of the solution. This is really exciting, this is why we need you. But be honest and open about it,” she said.

OPM’s long-term approach to building a federal IT talent pipeline also extends to recruiting STEM students who are about to graduate and join the labor market.

Russ said that OPM estimates about 70% percent of tech graduates entering the job market see job stability as their top priority.

“Government can definitely offer that,” she said. “We are anticipating that people who are getting ready to graduate from technical programs, from different degree programs, who maybe thought that they were going to go work at some of these big tech companies [that] are now of course laying off workers, we’re hoping that we can scoop up some of that early career talent.”

Amante said OPM’s findings fall in line with what the Partnership learned last fall, when it went to college campuses to learn about students’ interest in joining the federal workforce.

“So many students talked about stability, which was surprising to us. I think people are coming at this from a very different perspective than during the Great Resignation. We’re at a different stage now, and people are thinking about stability. And so the government provides stability — it provides exciting work, reasonable hours, and a stable job. And so particularly for people who are experiencing layoffs, or for people entering the workforce, and just watching what is happening, this is a really great opportunity to try a public sector job,” she said.

The virtual job fair also demonstrates how agencies are able to cast a wider net for tech hires by offering telework-friendly and remote work-friendly positions.

“We know that workplace flexibility can help attract the best talent across the country, no matter where they are,” Russ said. “We’ve definitely seen that agencies have a lot of flexibilities and what they can offer. And we’re really encouraging agencies to think about those flexibilities.”

Agencies and employees also benefit from telework and remote work in other ways. OPM’s fiscal 2020 telework report found telework led to more than $180 million in savings across government, because of reduced absences, and reduced transit and commuting costs.

Amante said the current generation of entry-level hires are used to working remotely and consider that a baseline expectation for serious job offers.

“To get the best talent, you’re going to have to be more flexible,” she said.

The virtual job fair reflects not just the art of the possible, but the reality that about 85% of federal jobs are outside the Washington, D.C. metro area.

“That is the message we continue to tell folks: Don’t assume you have to come to Washington. This job can be anywhere across the country,” Amante said.

Navigating the culture change from tech to government

OPM and the organizations behind the Tech to Gov job fair are also trying to help private-sector tech workers successfully transition from the culture of Big Tech to federal IT.

“What is worse [than] hiring someone and them leaving within two months, because they felt like they were not given an accurate reflection of the agency,” Amante said. “Being really honest about the state of their technology, the type of job that will be, the culture of the organization is really important.”

Watson said tech workers previously operating under the unofficial mantra of Silicon Valley, “move fast and break things,” may experience some whiplash working at the pace of government.

“Government is very different, in that you are building things that have to serve everyone. That is very different than being like, ‘I’m going to build a product that only the most recent iPhone users can use if they are based in the United States and on 5G,'” she said.

To ensure an effective transition into federal service, Watson recommends new hires from Big Tech start out by listening to more senior colleagues who have been puzzling away at some of the thornier problems in federal IT.

“They already understand the problems in such a really meaningful way. And it may just be that they’re lacking the technical capacity to really fully realize the vision of what could be. Our role is really to help empower them more than it is being the tech savior,” Watson said. “Our role is really to bring our tools to help make the government and civil servants who have been doing this work for decades help realize their visions.”

Russ said OPM is encouraging agencies to “set realistic expectations” about what new hires are able to do while working in government IT.

“What can you be doing with your immediate team to be pushing for change quickly, like you are used to in the private sector, but also knowing that maybe the speed of change is going to be slower? There are oftentimes things that are at much greater risk, which of course translates to maybe [being] more impactful,” she said.

Watson said new hires from Big Tech can help shake up the status quo at agencies by bringing a “demos, not memos” mindset to their work, and quickly prototyping solutions that have the potential to scale up and improve workflows at their agencies or governmentwide.

“There’s a lot that you can bring from the tech industry into government to potentially change a little bit of how things work [and] move things along,” she said.

OPM, meanwhile, is working with agencies on building a mutually beneficial relationship with a new generation of employees that aren’t thinking of their next job as the last stop in their career.

“We know that for many people, they don’t think about their career as like, ‘I’m going to stay in one place for 30 or 40 years,'” Russ said. “So we want to be thinking about how to encourage people to come and do a tour of duty within government.”

Amante said the next generation of tech hires are more open to the idea of leaving government for the private sector, but at some point returning to government service.

“We’re not going to have Gen Z coming in expecting 30 years in a career. And I think the sooner that agencies shift to that mindset, the better, [because] they’re able to capitalize on it,” she said.
“They may come back again, which is great. But also you’re helping them just build trust in government. Hopefully, they have a great experience. They’ll tell their friends and neighbors about what a great experience they have in government, it’s almost hopefully a recruiting mechanism for whatever agency they worked for.”

 

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