Miriam Cohen

From Intern to Chief Human Capital Officer: Miriam Cohen Reflects on a Federal Career

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s outgoing top HR executive spent more than three decades in government service.

Thirty-four years after taking her first federal job as an intern at the Commerce Department, Miriam Cohen is stepping down from the highest ranks of government. The chief human capital officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will retire later this month from a profession significantly reshaped by advances in technology and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It's fascinating to see how views [on telework] have evolved in six or seven short months,” Cohen said. Government Executive interviewed Cohen about her long federal career, the recent shift to remote work and more. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Can you summarize your years and positions with the federal government? 

I actually started out as a graduate student intern from the University of Pittsburgh many, many years ago, and I came into the Department of Commerce at the International Trade Administration and had various positions at Commerce. And it was actually at Commerce where I moved into the Senior Executive Service.

But after many years there and living in Rockville, Maryland, and parking at the White Flint Metro and seeing the NRC every day on my way to downtown, I was like, “I really need a job there.” So I came to the NRC in 2004 [to] the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response. It was a very, very busy office, post-9/11. And I was one of the people that was in charge of putting together the infrastructure to support that office. Then 2008 to 2010, I was in what was known at that time as the Office of Human Resources and in 2010 became director [and] the Chief Human Capital Officer.

What are some of the changes you observed about human capital management over the years?

It's amazing how the technology really has evolved not just in the government, but also in the private sector. A lot has been automated from the ranking and rating of candidates to using keyword searches to see how people meet minimum qualifications. I think those are pretty standard now.

What's also changed is the talent coming into the agencies these days. Five or six years ago, it was cool to be in government. And then there was a period where maybe it wasn't as cool. I think that now, especially in our agency, where we have a challenge with respect to workforce demographics being skewed toward a more experienced workforce, it's really critical for us to be able to attract more junior employees into the agency that can then become the future talent for leadership positions down the road. 

It's a really great opportunity for our agency because we've had a period where we grew quite a bit, up until 2010, and then in the past eight, nine years we've been through a period of downsizing. That's created a challenge because when you're not hiring and you're downsizing, it's hard to attract people to come to work for you. But now we want to really reach the new people that are graduating from colleges and universities and really build our pipeline again.

What have been some of your proudest achievements as the chief human capital officer? 

Before I became the chief human capital officer, the NRC was always considered one of the best places to work. And again, this is when we were right at the height of the nuclear renaissance, when we thought this country was going to be building a lot of new nuclear power plants. And over time that didn’t materialize and so to be able to lead the agency's human capital programs during those years of downsizing has been challenging, but I would say very rewarding, because we had to really do things that would preserve people's jobs to the extent that we could. Those were really big challenges because when things are good and people are getting promoted and you're sitting at the top of the world as one of the best places to work, and then you come into this new environment where people aren't getting promoted as fast, then you have to actually have new ways of keeping people engaged. 

And so we've really tried to tell people that “hey, you know, what, if you have to spend more time at your current grade and move horizontally in the organization to acquire new experiences, that's still helping you in your career.” The vertical movement may not have been as fast for folks in the past three to five years as it might have been in the three to five years prior, but I think we've done a good job of providing people opportunities to enhance their skill sets by some of these more lateral moves. And at the same time, I think it's important to note that this agency has also been really successful because the people that come here are very tied to the mission of protecting people and the environment. Our employee engagement scores through the years have still been above the government averages, even when we were downsizing. 

Does the political party of the administration affect your work at all?

I'd say the work is nonpartisan. I think there are challenges in the public sector these days, generally, given the environment that we're in, but we really are trying to focus on things that are under our control and not so much on what's happening external to us. We focus on making sure that we're meeting the safety and security mission that we have, and ensuring people stay engaged in the work that we're doing. 

But clearly when there's challenges overall in the public sector in terms of bringing new talent in and whatnot, we face similar challenges that other agencies might have. Quite frankly, we weren't doing a lot of hiring in the past three to five years. It's only recently, in the past year, that we really started thinking about what we need to do to really bring in new talent and we haven't had any issues bringing new people in. In fact, we onboarded our new cohort of what we call our nuclear regulatory apprenticeship network—23 new employees from colleges and universities across the United States, and we onboard them virtually. They're starting apprenticeships in various parts of our organization in the next few weeks.

How has it been to work remote the last six months, at the end of your career? 

Well it's fascinating to see how views have evolved in six or seven short months. I think we at NRC have had a very progressive telework policy, even prior to the pandemic. But then when the pandemic hit, 98% or more folks have been doing full time telework. And in a very short time, a huge percentage of our employees are like, well, ‘this is great. And I'd like to continue full time telework.’ 

While we're doing everything we can to protect people in this pandemic, and ensure that they can work safely and remotely from their homes, I do think that there is something to be said about having a physical presence in the office at the right time. And I say this [with regard to] how to mentor and develop and coach new employees. I think it is going to be very difficult to do long-term, especially in the work environment that we have where we really need people to develop acumen in our regulatory craft, and it's kind of hard to do that in a remote environment. And further, these folks really need to be paired with senior people that can oversee what they're doing and learn from them. So my concern as the outgoing [chief human capital officer] and for agency management is, how are we going to build and sustain that new cadre of folks coming in while we are in a sustained remote environment?

What advice would you give to a new human capital officer? 

Well, the great news for me is that [Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer Mary Lamary, who will become the next CHCO] is very experienced in federal human resources activities. She has been side by side with me since she came on board in January and has been an active member of our COVID-19 task force. And so she is well apprised of all the activities that we should be focusing on as we think about what our new normal is going to be. And I think, quite frankly, that the NRC is not going to be really any different from our other federal partners in trying to navigate this new world that we have no experience in.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We’ve had a really big focus on sustaining and improving the culture at the NRC. While we're all constrained now in this environment, we have been trying to pulse employees to see what's on their mind. We really spend quite a bit of time and resources on things that employees may need, whether it's assistance from employee assistance programs, or little tips on how to survive teleworking every single day and introducing ways to reduce stress. When we're all tied to these screens, 10, 12 hours a day, it's not so good for the work life balance. We do need to find time to decompress and take time off from work.