VA building out career development portal to boost cyber skills

After creating an internal career development portal for cyber employees, the VA’s Office of Information and Technology aims to build out the platform further...

The Department of Veterans Affairs is getting a little more creative in its efforts to improve cyber skills in the agency’s workforce.

After the VA’s Office of Information and Technology initially created an internal career development portal for agency tech staff, the office is now aiming to build out the platform even further.

“By the end of the summer, every single work role up there is going to have this skills maturity assessment, including — we’re hoping, fingers crossed — our AI work roles for our employees,” VA Senior Cyber Workforce Analyst Sharon McPherson said during a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conference last week.

The VA career development portal is meant to help employees understand how they can enhance their cyber skills. It offers training opportunities and other resources to help them get there. But right now, out of the 32 different types of cyber work roles at VA, just about 10 of them have a fully developed skills-building curriculum.

“This is a work in progress,” McPherson said. “We have been working on this for about three to five years.”

Since the platform’s creation, there has been a lot of interest from both senior executives as well as employees who want to see further development of the resources available. But because it’s a relatively small team working on the project for quite a large workforce, it’s been a challenge to move quickly, McPherson said. That’s especially true when trying to carve out time to collaborate with subject matter experts on how to define and develop the roles.

“They are in the service lines, they have jobs — how do they fit time to help us develop these resources with what they are doing in order for them to successfully complete the mission that they have for the work role and the job position that they’re in?” McPherson said. “That’s our biggest challenge.”

The portal aims to first address and clarify inconsistencies in the definitions of different cyber skills. Then, through the platform, employees can take trainings to help boost their skills, while better aligning with the different cyber work roles that VA has created.

The 32 work roles VA has defined stem from NIST’s National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) framework. Those roles cover areas like IT and cybersecurity — and now AI as well.

“The skills-based profile that we have developed for each one of the work roles, based upon the NICE framework, actually underpins the resources that we are developing for our employees,” McPherson said.

Once fully fleshed out, VA’s goal for the portal is to help employees define and build their careers ideally within the agency. But ultimately, the portal is focused on fostering professional growth, regardless of whether an employee stays with the VA, or eventually chooses to leave.

“The career development portal is more than just a collection of resources — it’s a centralized hub offering role-specific videos, qualifications, certifications, curated curriculums and on-the-job training,” VA wrote in a recent blog post. “It serves as a one-stop destination for employees seeking to refine their skills or explore new career paths within OIT across multiple tracks — technical, business and leadership, with more tracks to come.”

For feds considering a switch in their careers, they’ll also find listings for temporary opportunities, alternate career pathways and links to other federal employment opportunities.

On top of offering higher salaries for VA IT staff, the career development portal is another way VA is trying to address a persistent cyber skills gap. And at the same time that agencies like the VA face a governmentwide skills gaps in cybersecurity, they’re also facing an aging workforce. Currently, less than 5% of federal IT employees are under age 30. Although there are thousands of open cyber positions governmentwide, many agencies are struggling to hire and retain qualified staff in those roles.

The career development portal offers both long-term training programs, as well as “just-in-time” training for cyber skills needed in the short term. There are resources like short videos, condensed skills sheets and FAQ pages that can help employees when they need to understand something quickly, and don’t have time to go through a full training module.

“It’s something that would help you actually do the skill or the task that you need to do right at that particular moment,” McPherson said.

For each task or skill, the portal also defines three levels of proficiency, and describes different “behavioral indicators” of what each level looks like in practice for employees. The OIT team developed a skills self-assessment for employees to help them understand where they are, and where they might look to take their skills and tasks to the next level.

“The knowledge is great, the skills are great,” McPherson said. “But can you apply that knowledge, can you apply those skills, and actually do the tasks that are required in each particular work role?”

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