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Talent development, giving employees opportunities and planning for the future workforce are important to every agency. For how they’re doing talent development and workforce planning at one large bureau, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the executive director of the Office of Talent Management at the Veterans Benefits Administration, Jeff Smith.
Tom Temin: Let’s start with the major challenges to talent management in an organization like VBA.
Jeff Smith: Well, I think the major challenge for VBA isn’t any different than a lot of the other federal agencies. It’s certainly being able to hire, train and retain a qualified workforce, it’s being able to invest employees and keep them professionally developed and engaged in our mission to where they make a career with VBA or VA as a whole, the big VA family. So we continue to try to be innovative in our ways to do that. So I think that that’s probably our biggest challenge is the workforce.
Tom Temin: And at the VBA, in particular, give us a sense of the makeup of the workforce. How many people are, say, adjudicators that have to make discretionary judgments over applications for benefits and so forth? How many are clerical? How many might be technologically oriented? What types of people fill the different buckets that you have?
Jeff Smith: Well, I don’t specifically have accurate numbers in that regard. VBA is currently about 26,000 employees strong. I would say 80% of our staff are focused on the mission of providing benefits to our veterans, while we’ve got the other 20% that fall into more support roles and administrative type activities. We do rely heavily on the VA department for other support from administrative as well as technology or IT type activities. So we do have them watching our back as well. But I think it’s an 80-20 split. Really, the preponderance of folks are really focused on processing those benefits for our veterans every day.
Tom Temin: What are the skills and talents in general that requires?
Jeff Smith: Well, that’s a good question. We have a number of what we would consider mission critical occupations, those that are actually reviewing medical information to make benefits determinations. We have staff that are in call centers that are connecting with veterans every day, that need to have that specialized experience and understand the programs. And then from an educational standpoint, we’ve got a number of educational programs that support our veterans. So we have staff that are engaged in processing those type of claims, and connecting private sector wise with learning institutions to make sure that we’ve got the support that we need for our veterans.
Tom Temin: So that means that the people need to know a lot about the programs themselves, the regulations, the details, the benefits that they are helping people obtain. But then it seems like they also need to know about what’s going on out there in the world with respect to the types of services and education programs that veterans might want to avail themselves of fair.
Jeff Smith: Absolutely, I feel comfortable in saying the work that we do is very, very complex. And it takes engagement across a wide spectrum of government agencies, as well as, like I mentioned, before private sector entities to provide those services across a wide spectrum for the veterans that they’re looking for. And again, these are disability claims, these are educational claims. We’re assisting veterans and finding employment and those type of things. So certainly very complex work that requires specialized experience.
Tom Temin: And so looking at it from the individual employee level, what is the approach VBA takes to make sure that their skills are up to date, or that if people want to move up the ranks or change positions, they can acquire the skills they need to get there?
Jeff Smith: Well, I think to start off, feedback from our staff is really critical and VBA has always made the customer experience and seeking feedback a priority. We continue to rely on our all employee survey as our primary source of feedback from our staff, which we’ve seen an upward trend and positive results in participation rates since 2019. So it’s critical that we seek that input from our staff as to what their personal needs are from a developmental standpoint. But we’ve worked closely with the Department and the other administration’s within VA to create a leadership and development framework. By doing this has allowed us to index the key leadership competencies and developmental activities across five leadership levels from emerging leaders through senior executives, and providing a more tailored approach to employee development based on experience and grade level works extremely well for us, and even outside the scope of the framework. VBA also offers a number of other programs, internal to VBA, such as the assistant directors development program, the leadership enhancement and enrichment programs and emerging leaders that are all directly mapped to the VA core competencies. Employees also have the ability to leverage our internal web based courses through our talent manager system. This places the employee in control in when and what courses they feel they need to progress, just a lot of great opportunities. Recently the chief learning officer from the VA provided LinkedIn Learning, that service, to where every VA employee has the ability to go on LinkedIn and seek opportunities to meet their personal needs.
Tom Temin: So it sounds like this whole effort is a pretty good element in the effort to retain people so that you don’t have a lot of turnover. Anything else that you do in the area of retention to keep people in VBA, because as you point out, complex skills are hard to replace?
Jeff Smith: I can assure you that VBA recognizes the importance of investing in our employees in a way that supports the mission to care for our veterans, but also meets the expectations of the employees. So we are very tied to that mission and making sure that the employee has those opportunities. And this alone requires our training staff to continually look for program improvements. Just because it worked yesterday, doesn’t mean it’s going to work tomorrow. We have to also focus on the timing of the training to ensure that it meets our operational demands, but also married up with the employees career progression. This isn’t an easy task. I can attest that we’re dedicated to developing and implementing world class training programs to support business excellence and growing leaders from within. So it’s a true partnership. We’ve got resources that we can provide the employee, but we also need the employee to come to the table in tell us what they need personally from a professional development program. So we will continue that partnership to make sure that we continue to have success going forward.
Tom Temin: And does your office have the responsibility to look ahead and see what the workforce needs of the future are for VBA?
Jeff Smith: Absolutely. Our HR workforce planning staff focus on succession planning. In that we must work with the the program managers and learning officers to ensure that we’re building a healthy bench of employees to backfill our mission critical occupations. And again, all this takes coordination and collaboration across the enterprise, to make sure that we’re meeting everybody’s needs. But succession planning is a cornerstone to our program here within talent management.
Tom Temin: And now that we’re past the one year mark in all of this pandemic and how that’s changed governments and all the telework, what was the effect on VBA and how have you been coping?
Jeff Smith: VBA, like a lot of the other government agencies, out of necessity use the pandemic as a springboard to leverage creative virtual tools to meet our developmental needs. VBA has transitioned its internal development programs over to platforms such as WebEx and Adobe, as well as Microsoft Teams, to simulate the classroom which continues to be successful. A big success story that we have is our distinguished speaker series that reaches well over 300 participants each session. We’ve had topics ranging from improving creativity and culture to resume writing. So a great success story. The virtual learning landscape for us has really been a game changer that will have us relying heavily on technology versus the traditional schoolhouse well into the future. The development team and employees have adapted to the virtual teaching and learning environment exceptionally well. And we will continue to be innovative in technology used to meet our needs. So it put us back on our heels, initially, but we we pivoted pretty quickly over into the virtual learning world and we’ve been very, very successful.
Tom Temin: Jeff Smith is Executive Director of the Office of Talent Management at the Veterans Benefit Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.