The Future of Federal Workforce Reskilling, Automation, & Hiring Practices: Part I
The past two decades have seen an exponential rise in technological advances. The technology boom that’s given us the internet, smartphones, and tools such as video conferencing, and instant messaging has revolutionized the way people work. We’ve also seen advancements in robotics and automation that have sped up manufacturing processes, improving efficiency, but sometimes to the detriment of workers, particularly blue-collar workers, whose jobs can be replaced by automation.
These advancements have created new cultures in workplaces that are driven by technology and openness. With a new, technologically-savvy generation entering the workforce, workplace culture is changing. New adaptive strategies such as investment in professional development and agile workplaces have opened employers to new workplace practices, such as transparent workplace communication, career movement, and professional development. Employers are quickly finding that if they invest in their employees, it’s paid back in kind with increased efficiency, ability, and flexibility.
On December 6, 2018, Government Executive, a Federal Government news outlet, hosted an event with several panels of Federal experts on these topics. The Federal Government often falls behind the curve on new technology and workplace practices. Administrative and budgetary constraints usually curb innovation, while politics dictate the pace and volatility of these changes. Throughout three panels, Federal executives in organizations ranging from the Small Business Administration to the Department of Agriculture to DoD to the Peace Corps shared their experiences, expectations, and hopes for the future of reskilling, automation, and hiring the future Federal workforce.
PART I: Reskilling and Upskilling the Federal Workforce
The conference started with a panel about reskilling and upskilling Federal workers. Consisting of Dr. Vicki Brown of DoD, Traci DiMartini of the Peace Corps, and Robyn Rees of the National Science Foundation (NSF), each panelist contributed their views on what Federal reskilling looks like now, and what it can look like in the future.
Reskilling and upskilling is a practice that involves training employees to complete their job to the best of their ability. It can take many shapes and forms. In the manufacturing workplace, it could be training staff to use new computers to improve manufacturing efficiency and standards. In an office setting, it could be sending employees to conferences and classes to learn new skills. The term “professional development” is used frequently to describe reskilling and upskilling. The essential goal is to invest resources into your employees so they can give companies greater returns than before.
DiMartini expressed strong approval of professional development in conjunction with agile workplaces, stating reskilling her staff and creating an open work environment is her ideal workplace. To her, if you invest in individuals, they will pay you back with increased performance, not only with new skills but renewed dedication. It’s not a matter of career. It’s a matter of skills. Why not give your staff the best tools for the job? She also countered a common argument against reskilling: what if an employee leaves? To her, it doesn’t matter if they stay in her staff or not. Many Federal workers often make career moves within the Federal Government, so their skills aren’t necessarily going to waste; their professional development still benefits the government. If managers give their employees opportunity, those employees will give loyalty, better output, and foster a better work environment.
DiMartini’s problem is her agency doesn’t provide a sizable enough budget to pursue new training for employees. The culture for retraining exists, but without monetary support, has not yet been realized.
For Dr. Brown, it’s a different story. DoD has much more funding and employees. With 750,000 civilian workers and 1.2 million military personnel, DoD has a greater need and means to invest in retraining. The problem DoD faces is the amount of rigidity in their structure. For DoD, an agile culture doesn’t mesh well with military hierarchy. However, it does work in some areas. It’s more about fostering a culture of flexibility in one of the most stringent work cultures in the United States. Most non-agile work cultures revolve more around reactive solutions. When a problem occurs, changes are made to stop it in the future. Dr. Brown believes managers should be proactively looking for answers. Instead of asking why a project went wrong, managers should ask how a plan could go wrong.
Dr. Brown also believes that we can effectively measure an employee’s skills, rather than their qualifications through analytics. Dr. Brown explained a person’s job title does not dictate their skillset, or their ability to accomplish other jobs. They could have skills that exceed the demands of their positions within the organization. For example, many acquisition staff need constant updates on FAR changes and acquisition practices which doesn’t mean that they can’t also offer IT support or program management. Flexibility in a person’s skills can often provide support with problems their job titles might not exactly cover.
The NSF’s Robyn Rees offered more experimental solutions. She said her department had taken numerous approaches to reskilling. The NSF asked how they can create a culture of reskilling and found there are multiple known solutions, but they wanted to know about future innovations; what are other people working on now that they haven’t tried yet? To do this, the NSF created an innovation program where any US citizen over the age of 14 can submit reskilling ideas. The NSF provides rewards to winners of the contest and then tries to implement their plans.
DoD has also planned an “innovation day,” where they’ll invite numerous private sector companies to share their workforce strategies for reskilling their employees.
Since all three agencies are vastly different in their functions, it’s important to understand the parameters of each agency. DoD has a significant number of blue collar workers that require different kinds of reskilling as opposed to office staff. The Peace Corps has incredibly experienced volunteers, but a smaller, trained professional staff. The NSF has trained, experienced staff, but requires constant retraining to keep up to date with scientific progress. The two greatest obstacles are often curating cultures for reskilling and funding to reskill staff. However, the Federal Government is aware of the shift to reskilling workers. Progress is slow but steady.