Presidential Management Fellows plan to enter the cyber reskilling game

This story was updated on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 at 9:55 a.m. to clarify the number of Presidential Management Fellows in the program. 

As the ongoing pandemic has forced nearly every agency to quickly rethink how its employees work and serve the public, the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program is future-proofing its own organization too.

The goal, however, goes beyond the current pandemic.

“None of us actually know what our agencies are going to need in, quite frankly, six months, much less six years,” Michael Lawyer, a former PMF and current board member of the Presidential Management Alumni Association, said Thursday during an ACT-IAC webinar. “None of us thought six months ago this is how we’d be working now, and these are the challenges we’re facing now. We’re regularly wrong about the future.”

It’s why the PMF program will offer fellows in the upcoming class of 2021 the chance to take a cyber aptitude and attitude assessment.

The PMF program already offered a similar assessment to a subsection of fellows earlier this year through a pilot study, said Arianne Gallagher, director of the PMF program for the Office of Personnel Management.

Of those who took the exam, 30% demonstrated “high cyber aptitude and attitude,” she said.

“That will allow them to see [whether] they have the aptitude to learn cyber skills successfully,” Gallagher said. “And then do they have the attitude that their fit could be good for a cyber role, especially a cyber role with that leadership development in mind? We know agencies are looking to train folks with cyber skills who can help lead and manage other cybersecurity employees in the workforce.”

Interested fellows in the upcoming class will have the opportunity to take a similar exam, with the goal of placing interested and high-potential fellows as program analysts at various agencies.

“Because of that we’re going to scale the amount of people that we assess and continue to learn how we can potentially be a leadership talent pipeline for some of those cyber roles,” Gallagher said.

They’ll learn cyber skills, as well as the leadership development competencies the program is known for, throughout the course of the two-year fellowship.

In one sense, the plans to offer aptitude and attitude tests are yet another example of the government’s ongoing efforts to reskill federal employees and expand a much-needed cybersecurity workforce.

But in a broader sense, the plans show how the PMF program is preparing for the future federal workforce — even if it’s unclear what that looks like.

“The best way to future-proof your organization is to hire for attitude and aptitude,” Lawyer said. “Because if you hire for experience, you’re going to hire the wrong experience because you’re hiring for today, not what you actually need in six months or a year when that person is up to speed. If you hire for attitude and aptitude you get people who grow into exactly what your organization needs when you need them.”

The PMF program, which has gone through several iterations in its 43-year-old history, is the government’s leadership development program for entry-level, advanced-degree candidates.

The program accepts some 300-to-600 finalists depending on agency demand, and Gallagher said the fellowship is looking to expand. Finalists go on to apply for temporary appointments at participating agencies under a two-year fellowship.

Roughly 85-to-90% of fellows are eventually converted to permanent positions in government for at least a few years. Some leave their agencies when they can’t find opportunities to advance, though many move to other departments or seek out new positions in the private sector or non-profit space still close to government.

Roughly 10% of the current Senior Executive Service are past fellows, Gallagher said.

Like most other federal organizations, the PMF program has found other ways to adapt its operations to the virtual environment.

Leadership development learning sessions are all virtual now. Gallagher said the program has since learned how it can best engage with the fellows and create places where they can interact.

“You don’t design a session where you’re going to have somebody lecture for an hour-and-a-half but then you want everybody to have their camera on,” she said. “You want to make sure that when you have that video there, you’re using it to give them opportunities to interact with one another.”

In-person leadership development sessions were several days long before the pandemic. But day-long video sessions can be exhausting, Gallagher said, and the PMF program has since broken them into shorter sessions over the course of two weeks.

In lieu of an in-person hiring fair for the fellows, the program developed new recruitment and onboarding tools for agencies.

Agencies have a new career ladder map where they can bring finalists in under a general “program analyst” position but identify a more specific, targeted position at the end of the fellowship.

“You can focus the development. You can focus the experience so that by the end of the two years if you need that person to be a cyber policy strategist or if you need them to be a public affairs specialist, both you and the fellow know that at the outset,” Gallagher said. “You can shape the experience so they can meet those qualifications at the end. By the time that they finish the two-year fellowship they know the organization. They know the skills needed to assume that job, and they can more readily assume that position. These templates allow folks to do that.”

The PMF program also helped agencies host webinars and other virtual informational sessions, so departments had the space to communicate their opportunities to finalists.

“It gives each agency sort of their own advertising web page so that they can tell their story, get that word out and they share information from folks about upcoming opportunities,” Gallagher said. “Giving agencies that space, that platform to communicate in this remote environment was really important.”

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