Five Lessons for the coming AI talent surge
COMMENTARY | Some of what agencies learned while filling infrastructure roles can serve as examples for how to hire the AI workforce.
The AI Executive Order issued earlier this week calls for a talent surge to hire the agency AI technical and support staff to implement this Order. Over the past two years, federal government staff of all stripes have worked across agencies to hire more than 6,000 people to implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act. This work is ongoing and the engineers, scientists, contracting and grant-making personnel, and others are helping to build the cell towers, transmission facilities, energy infrastructure that will help meet climate change goals, improve quality of life, and economic competitiveness of the nation.
The AI talent surge will improve agencies’ capacity to implement the EO’s requirements -- to take advantage of AI’s promises while protecting the government and citizens from harm. For example, now Data Scientist (GS-1560) positions are on the Direct Hire Appointing Authorities List. This recognizes the severe shortage of suitable candidates in the market for data science and other technical fields. It will help move candidates through the hiring processes faster, a key challenge when hiring technical talent into government.
Here are five lessons from the infrastructure investment hiring that the AI talent surge can take advantage of:
- Carefully Select the Interagency Team Members and Set Them Loose to Act: The HR, program, and leadership team members at each agency and at the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget need to be egoless, fearless, and expedient. Yes, they need the domain knowledge in AI, HR, and program/product management but they also need to be able to work together to solve problems fast. They should have no compunction about reaching out to an assistant secretary for a decision and take action unless they are absolutely prohibited by law or regulation. Speed is critical. The literature would say they don’t need to like each other, but they kinda do.
- Create Common Data Sets to Guide Decisions and Continue to Refine Them: Dashboards displaying all-agency hiring needs and progress toward hiring goals provide a shared picture of the common and individual agency bottlenecks to take action on and the opportunities for shared actions (recruiting, hiring flexibilities, job postings, etc.). Continuing to build on these dashboards to capture information on onboarding, retention, applicant flow information, and employee experience will help with sustainability. OPM and the agencies created this for the infrastructure investment surges. A Stat for talent surges, if you will.
- Not Only Allow but Promote Differences in Implementation by Agency: Whether its new ways to work with hiring managers, methods to quickly identify and push forward validated hiring needs, or tools to gather data, each agency will implement ideas, workarounds, unexpected solutions within the bounds of federal hiring rules in implementing the talent surge. Capturing, promoting, and sharing these will help all peer agencies implement faster.
- Run Interference for Each Other and Educate on Key Implementation Tasks: Sometimes leaders will jump to conclusions based on early outcomes or want to circumvent the hiring process in ways that trespass on Merit Systems Principles. Leaders on the interagency teams will need to run interference for their team members and take the opportunity to educate and engage on what the teams are doing to clear the bottlenecks.
- Use Your Tools and Ask for More: Agencies have considerable hiring flexibility tools at their disposal as well as tools developed for previous hiring surges. OPM created playbooks, enabled USAJOBS tools, conducted webinars on key hiring topics and misconceptions, and worked with agencies to support their hiring. Shared certs, shared PDs, hiring flexibilities/direct-hire authorities, across-government and targeted bonus and compensation actions, engaging subject-matter experts and assessment tools in the hiring process and partnering with suitability/background check staff can all speed up and improve the hiring and employee experience.
The need to communicate challenges and results far and wide, achieving workforce goals in early career hiring and other strategic workforce needs, and integrating new practices into normal hiring operations are some additional lessons.
The AI talent surge will build on the efforts of the 6,000 people already hard at work implementing the BIL, IRA, the CHIPS and Science Act. The government can leverage these lessons learned as these new teams get to work. We must get the right people on board to take advantage of the opportunities AI affords our nation and protect us from its misuse.
Peter Bonner is the former associate director of HR Solutions at the Office of Personnel Management. Until last May, he led OPM’s work helping the agencies that needed to hire staff to implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act. He is a Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.