Want to modernize the federal workforce? Here's how
A new nonprofit study examines how the federal government could update the civil service to both capture new talent and capitalize on its available talent.
Concerns over the dwindling pool of talent coming into federal agencies have lingered for decades, but the pace of major events demanding a whole-of-government response has increased exponentially, and a new report is examining how the executive branch can respond.
The Convergence Roundtable on Civil Service Modernization’s Blueprint for Action report — penned by a coterie of current and former federal officials, federal employee union representatives, better governance think tanks and associations, academics and backed by the non-profit focused on solving social challenges — explores the talent challenges facing the federal workforce and what strategies could be used to address them.
“Whether it is facilitating access to medical care or creating the infrastructure to prevent and quickly respond to bad actors or natural disasters, civil service workers occupy an increasingly complex and diverse set of roles in ensuring that the American public, and our allies around the world, are in the best position to thrive and navigate our changing landscape,” the report said.
The roundtable conducted more than 100 interviews with stakeholders from across the federal space, from agency and congressional leaders to employee associations and academics, and spotlighted the opportunities for the federal workforce in four areas:
- Gen Z recruitment and retention
- Veterans’ recruitment and retention
- Retiree hiring
- Cyber Training and Reskilling
Those areas also provided several cross-cutting themes where agencies could collaborate to address challenges or adopt and scale up other existing programs to address talent issues more broadly.
Though concerns over the declining representation of younger employees in the federal workforce have been a mainstay in talent conversations for years — the report notes that Gen Z accounts for 9% of the total U.S. labor force, but less than 2% of the federal workforce — the roundtable breaks down areas where OPM and agencies can better engage potential talent.
That includes deploying more active recruitment strategies to find applicants on sites beyond USAJOBS, collaborating with better government associations to reach potential talent and broadening the targeted populations to find qualified workers.
The report also points to agency-facing solutions like OPM’s efforts around skills-based hiring and pooled applications, applicant engagement tools like polls on the FBI’s jobs site, a detailed “quality job framework” offered by the Labor Department and other methods.
“I saw, in the end, a lot of alignment, in the pooled hiring, for instance, skills-based hiring, all of those things that are, I think, very eminently doable,” said Caroline Chang, Convergence’s senior director of civil service and policy affairs, who directed the roundtable. “So part of the hope is with a report like this that represents so many voices, we are not actually going out on a limb, we are actually validating and reinforcing some of the conversations that are happening.”
While veteran recruitment into federal jobs has been a mainstay for 80 years, the report notes that agencies could bolster existing programs to provide veterans more employment guidance rather than just information.
The report also cites efforts like the Defense Department’s SkillBridge program, which offers civilian training, internships and apprenticeships to servicemembers in their last 180 days of service, and calls for partnering with federal agencies to expand their talent pools.
Capitalizing on established experience by rehiring retired federal employees is another avenue the report highlighted, albeit with a mix of risk and reward acknowledged by the roundtable.
The report noted that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.2% of all individuals who retired in March 2021 were back in the workforce in March 2022, leading to a potential surge of experienced workers that federal agencies could capitalize on.
The caveat would be potentially having older workers take jobs from younger talent, but also the compensation challenges of employing workers whose retirement benefits might be affected as a result.
“Roundtable participants discussed concerns about perceptions of possible abuse of the dual compensation waiver and overall cost based on the assumption that they retired at higher GS levels than an agency might otherwise hire. The comparative costs, which should include insurance and leave benefits, should be examined as agencies review their staffing options,” the report said.
“One specific proposal of the Roundtable Retiree Working Group is for agencies to work with OPM to institute pilots that add dual compensation waivers to their broader toolkit to fill mission-critical skills gaps.”
The group also weighed creating a civil service reserve corps of recent retirees like those deployed by the Intelligence Community and FBI to staff short-term, surge, and other roles.
Finally, the report explores ongoing efforts to reskill federal employees into desired cybersecurity roles.
While cyber reskilling has been a focus of the past two presidential administrations, the report said agencies could add to those efforts by scaling up programs like SkillBridge and the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity Talent Management System to help identify skilled talent across the federal government.
The report also calls on OPM and Congress to take steps to expand special pay rates for cyber and information technology jobs and promote competency-based assessments.
Other strategies proposed included collaboration between the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, National Institute for Standards and Technology’s NICE Program Office, National Security Agency, Defense Department and National Science Foundation to monitor potential talent emerging from cyber bootcamp, certificate and other programs.
The report seeks to offer federal agencies new ways to bolster their talent pipelines to meet the increased demands of the 21st century.
“As the global economy grows, the demographics of the U.S. labor force evolve, and the way that work is done in other sectors changes, the federal government must lead and not lag in using a variety of levers to access talent pools in a fair and contemporary fashion that matches today’s labor trends and anticipates future needs,” it said.