National Science Foundation seeks to ‘lower the barriers’ to reskilling federal workforce

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As agencies look outside the traditional classroom setting when it comes to reskilling their workforce, the National Science Foundation is looking to build a “market” for technology aimed at lowering the barriers for federal employees today to get the jobs of the future.

Robyn Rees, an  IT governance and strategy adviser at NSF, and the IT budget lead of the agency’s information systems division, said the Career Compass Challenge looks to reshape what constitutes training and reskilling in government.

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“People learn in different ways, and we need to acknowledge that. We need to lower the barriers for access to training and lower the cost of training by being more open about what we accept as training,” Rees said Thursday at a Government Executive forum on the future of the federal workforce.

The Career Compass Challenge, launched Nov. 9, asks the public to submit ideas of how NSF and other agencies can build a culture of continuous reskilling through advanced technology. The agency will accept ideas from the public through the end of December.

“The idea is, ‘I’m a worker, I have ideas about how to solve this problem, but I’m not going to build the tool,'” Rees said. “So I’m going to let the people that have ideas tell me what they think in the first part.”

NSF will select up to five winning white-paper proposals for a $5,000 prize.

For the second part of the challenge, NSF will invite the vendor community to build prototypes based on the finalists’ white-paper proposals. In August, the agency will select one finalist for a $75,000 prize.

“The idea is there’s data and there’s tools, and there’s people with ideas out there. If we can get all of those people thinking together and creating a prototype of a tool that could help this ecosystem exist, somebody’s going to make money off of that,” Rees said. “An agency like NSF is not built to manage a shared service for a tool like this [for] the federal government, and we shouldn’t have to.”

The Trump administration is also casting a wider net to find emerging tech talent. Last Friday, Suzette Kent, the federal chief information officer, launched the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy, which looks to take non-IT feds and retrain to become cyber defense analysts.

Rees said NSF turned to Challenge.gov to get some out-of-the-box feedback.

“Usually what we do is we right acquisitions to meet a need that we’ve imagined and that we can define pretty clearly, and we get what we ask for,” she said. “But what I want to do is stimulate thinking around a problem statement I have, and I want the market to respond to me instead of me taking what the market has to offer.”

DoD seeks vendor input at ‘reverse innovation day’

Vicki Brown, the Defense Department’s chief learning officer for the civilian workforce, and director of talent development said DoD is looking at building a “career pathing tool,” which aims to help employees chart a course for the next step in their careers.

DoD will get further workforce development feedback from industry around January-February 2019. That’s when it’ll kick off what Brown called a “reverse innovation day.”

“We know what we think we know, but we want them to tell us what we don’t know. How do we take this to the next level, so that we have something that we can use across the federal space instead of every individual organization creating this kind of capability,” she said.  “We want to be able to use it as shared services across the federal space so that we can conserve those resources that we have, and everybody’s drawing from the same space.”

Changing reskilling culture, boosting retention

Reskilling the federal workforce stands out as one of the cross-agency priority goals of the President’s Management Agenda.

Traci DiMartini, the Peace Corps’ chief human capital officer, said the current budget and management environment hamper a culture of continuous learning and reskilling.

“We don’t value training. The first thing that gets cut in the budget is training, and until we actually put our money where our mouth is, it’s never going to change,” she said. “We also have to get back to allowing managers to feel safe enough to let their folks shadow others to do maybe some cross-agency, cross-department gaining of skills. The first thing a manager is going to say to me is, ‘Oh great, Traci, let them get trained and then they’re going to leave.’ That’s OK, because someone else will come behind them that we can train.”

When it comes to hiring for emerging tech roles, Rees said HR offices will have to look beyond the usual metrics like years of experience. Instead, they’ll have to look closer at what skills candidates bring to the table.

“What we’re used to as hiring managers is looking at a resume, and looking for years of experience and certifications and degrees in a certain area of expertise,” she said. “And when we talk about reskilling and redeploying, we’re not talking about somebody who’s come up through those years of experience and expertise, and so how do we equip managers with a tool or just with the mindset of being more open to leveraging eligible workforce candidates in jobs that they might not, on paper, look like they’re qualified for, but maybe their skills are a good fit for.”

At the Peace Corps, DiMartini said matching up employees to jobs that meet their skills and interests could play a role in improving retention.

“I think we have the talent that we need. We just need to put them in the right places and support them, and it is something that you do continuously,” she said. “The more we hold onto people and keep them in a position they’ve either outgrown, they were never well-suited for to begin with, or it’s just a complete mismatch, that’s where we have catastrophe.”

At the Defense Department, Brown said the agency is also looking at retention rates through the  Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The survey asks employees about their intentions to stay within DoD.

“We have a mile marker or milestone that we’re using as we start to implement different programs related to reskilling or upskilling,” she said. “In three-to-four years, we can see where that trend is going for those individuals who are thinking about leaving the Defense Department.”

As for the National Science Foundation,  Rees said putting employees to work on emerging technology challenges could help them stick around longer.

“We have no shortage of forward-leaning people who want to implement robotic process automation and test bots. Well, I need those subject matter experts to build the bot. So now I’ve just given them a new skill set, and they have a new job for another couple of years. It’s probably going to stimulate and excite them in ways that they were bored before,” she said. “So might they stay on a little bit longer instead of retiring? It’s worth trying.”