The Department of Veterans Affairs avoided $200 million in turnover costs this year by using its VA Learning University to train employees.
“Among our employees, there have been positive reactions to the opportunities to grow as professionals and learn new skills. That has been helpful in reducing turnover,” Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepulveda told Federal News Radio.
A recent survey of chief human capital officers found their top priority was retaining employees amid pay freezes and budget cuts. “Do not diminish or back off of the high quality training that you need to provide them because you’re asking more of them,” he said.
Sepulveda has been involved in government personnel policy since serving as deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management during the Clinton administration. In a wide-ranging interview with Federal News Radio, he discussed his strategies for keeping employees, furthering hiring initiatives and influencing federal initiatives.
The VA is preparing for a busy year as troops return home and apply for benefits. Like most agencies, VA is asking its employees to carry larger workloads.
With half of the agency’s senior executives eligible to retire, Sepulveda said 2012’s biggest challenge would be keeping those folks around long enough to mentor the next generation of leaders, while continuing to invest in training to keep employees motivated.
At the same time, officials should consider defending feds against “politically motivated attacks” as a retention strategy, he said.
“We need to protect, to the extent that we can, the investments that agencies make in federal employees,” he said. “We also need to talk about the good work that they’re doing and provide the recognition they deserve.”
Hiring initiatives don’t end with vets
Unlike many others, VA is not under a hiring freeze. That luxury, and the VA’s mission, makes the agency one of the natural leaders in the Obama administration’s drive to bring more veterans into the civilian federal workforce.
The agency aims to make veterans 40 percent of its staff in 2012, up from 32 percent now, which is already better than the federal average. Sepulveda said recent initiatives and a job fair planned for January should boost the numbers. “We hired 12,000 veterans last year,” he said. “We’re hopeful we can do more.”
The agency created a website with online resume-writing tools. It also connects veterans with “coaches” to help them “navigate the most complex personnel system in the world—the US civil service,” he said.
VA plans to expand the site governmentwide in 2012. But Sepulveda said more work is needed to preparing agencies to welcome disabled vets, in particular, to their workforce.
“I’m not really sure the low-hanging fruit has been picked. We have a ways to go,” he said. “The governmentwide goal remains around two percent. That’s certainly not enough to make a difference.”
Sepulveda, who was the first Latino to serve as deputy director of OPM, also sits on a council that has drafted recommendations for boosting Latino representation in the federal workforce. It’s currently at eight percent, less than two points higher than it was in the 1990s.
“To the extent that Latinos are not represented in government at the federal level, it means that our government is not as responsive to a growing segment of the population and is not leveraging the rich diversity, insights and dynamic qualities of this growing community,” he said. “It also means to some extent, that the government is not as democratic in terms of representing the interests of the community.”
The council’s recommendations to OPM Director John Berry call for agency leaders to recognize the disparity and for human resources staff to analyze their recruitment efforts.
“These are appropriate and traditional ways of addressing the problem,” he said. “They’ve got to be done in a systematic way, where they haven’t been done in the past.”
Leading the way
As one of a few Senate-confirmed chief human capital officers, Sepulveda admitted that he may have an advantage over his peers at other agencies.
But he attributed his influence over agency and governmentwide HR priorities to the skills and experience he gained during his tenure at OPM and to the support he has received at VA.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Deputy Secretary Scott Gould have championed investing in employees as the best way to serve veterans, he said.
“They have been great proponents of having HR at the table,” he said. “That has helped not only here at VA, but it has helped me be quite active on an interagency level, working with the CHCO council and other institutions, to move forward a progressive human capital agenda.”