Twenty Years Later, Federal Workforce Skills Gaps Remain a High-Risk Issue
Since 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified skills gaps as a high-risk area impacting federal staff across all agencies, affecting productivity, and resulting in costly issues. In 2021, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and GAO reiterated that “strategic human capital management remains high-risk because more work is needed to address government-wide mission-critical skills gaps. According to the GAO 2019 analysis of federal high-risk areas, skills gaps played a role in approximately 49% of the government-wide high-risk areas. Skills gaps within individual federal agencies can lead to costly, less-efficient government.”
According to GAO, plans to address long-standing skills gaps in 2020 and 2021 have been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the crisis has exacerbated government-wide staffing issues. Any workforce planning related to the pandemic should therefore carefully address identifying and closing skills gaps.
GAO maintains a list of high-risk areas, including skills gaps, and reassesses risks and recommendations every two years. Between 2019 and 2021, GAO found that skills gaps were one of five issue areas that had worsened. And, of the 35 other areas identified as high-risk, skills gaps impacts 22 of them.
Examples of Skills Gaps
Some of the identified skills gaps are wide-ranging deficits that impact the federal workforce at large, such as a lack of adequate training in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills that workers need to complete their work. A lack of STEM skills in the workforce has had a drastic impact on cybersecurity, creating the potential for huge risk across all government sectors.
Compounding the challenges created by skills gaps with existing staff is the difficulty in filling open roles. Staffing shortages mean that new staff who may bring mission-critical skills to the table are not there. Therefore, a two-pronged approach is necessary to train existing staff and bring in new talent.
Review Recommendations and Create a Plan
These reports may seem daunting, but the recommendations already in place are a great starting point for leadership and management to act.
Reviewing the reports and recommendations, both for government-wide skills gaps and agency-specific issue areas, is a crucial first step in addressing the needs of individual agencies and staff. While OPM has been working to address these issues broadly, they have noted that more work is needed on the agency level.
Even if leaders are not directly involved in creating action plans for change, becoming more knowledgeable about the issues, their root causes, and what is being done both within the scope of work and at large will prepare leaders to address day-to-day and long-term needs. This knowledge will also help identify areas needing improvement and start conversations about the potential for individual participation.
If your agency is struggling to attract and retain employees with critical skills, review your hiring and retention plans to determine what may be causing job seekers to go elsewhere. Create a plan to review recruitment strategies, compare compensation models, and think creatively about how to message the impact of public service roles. The importance of adequate workforce planning cannot be overstated.