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USDA CIO cites workforce ‘restructuring’ as reason for hiring freeze, early retirement offers

Citing its ongoing IT modernization efforts and an effort to “restructure” the workforce, the Agriculture Department’s Office of the Chief Information Officer is offering early retirements to its IT specialists.

As part of a “strategic restructuring,” USDA’s OCIO will offer a round of Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) options to eligible IT specialists, according to emails reviewed by Federal News Network and confirmed by the department.

Under VERA, employees with 20 years of service at age 50, or those with 25 years of service at any age, will be allowed to voluntarily retire and earn an immediate annuity.

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USDA is offering early retirements to all employees in the IT specialist 2210 series, regardless of grade, job series and location. Cybersecurity specialists are not eligible for a VERA, the department said.

Employees hired under a direct-hire authority are also ineligible for an early retirement.

Those eligible for an early retirement can apply with the agency through mid-August, USDA said. The department said it hopes to accept as many VERA requests as it can, but early retirement offers will be extended on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Those accepted for early retirements are expected to retire by Sept. 30.

Early retirement options do not come with Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP), a USDA spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network.

Beyond the early retirement offers, a hiring freeze is also in place across much of the USDA OCIO, according to a USDA email and confirmed by the department.

The hiring freeze was in place as of June 30, and it only applies to IT professionals who “report directly or indirectly to the mission area chief information officers or program executives,” the USDA spokesperson said.

“The hiring freeze will allow USDA leadership, in conjunction with the Chief Information Officer Council (CIOC), an opportunity to assess current staffing needs, ensure the department’s IT resources are directed to improving organizational alignment and mission focus on behalf of its customers,” one of the USDA emails reviewed by FNN said. “The goal is to ‘right size’ the IT workforce and drive the modernization of skillsets across USDA. The freeze includes permanent and temporary promotions (excluding career ladder promotions) lateral movement of staff, and movement of staff between mission areas. Cybersecurity positions are exempt from the freeze.”

The USDA OCIO hiring freeze will be in place through fiscal 2021, the department’s spokesperson said. The chief information officer will inform mission areas when the freeze has ended, and USDA leadership have an exception process to hire IT professionals as needed.

The early retirement options and hiring freeze are an effort to “modernize USDA’s IT workforce skillset and optimize our IT investments,” the department’s spokesperson said.

“USDA’s continued effort to modernize information technology will require different IT specialist skill sets,” one of the USDA emails reviewed by FNN said. “As USDA IT mission areas close data centers and consolidate end user support services, the Office of the Chief Information Officer will continue to evolve and restructure to support cloud technology, system testing, robotic processes automation (RPA) and machine learning. Restructuring these positions will provide the necessary flexibility to design, implement and support the future of the IT workforce across the department, improve organizational alignment and mission focus on behalf of customers.”

USDA has been at the forefront of several IT and workforce initiatives in recent years.

The department was one of the first participants in the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence initiative, where it’s consolidated data centers, dabbled in RPA and machine learning and revamped certain public-facing websites. The department has also conducted impact studies to determine RPA’s impact on its employees.

More recently, the department consolidated its IT networks in the South and Whitten buildings in Washington, D.C., to prepare for a series of employee office moves in and around USDA facilities in the national capital region.

The OCIO, along with USDA mission and program areas, have migrated 17 disparate networks from the South and Whitten buildings to one operational network.

“There will be centralized management and maintenance which will improve the customer experience and enable employees to access computer resources regardless of their location in either building,” USDA said in a series of frequently-asked questions given to employees, which Federal News Network obtained.

Consolidation wrapped up on June 25. Network consolidation was part of USDA’s One Neighborhood initiative, an effort to realign employees and their colleagues into common workspaces, organized by mission area and function.

USDA employees began moving to newly reorganized office spaces in late July, according to department FAQs for employees. The department is planning to make 4,548 individual moves over the next four months through mid-December.