Agencies craving STEMM talent should bolster skills of persuasion

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

The mother lode of workforce hiring is a candidate with strong STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math and medical) skills. The competition between agencies and the private sector is fierce, and it’s only getting worse.

Less than a third of the federal workforce has the STEMM skills agencies need, according to a report called “The Biggest Bang Theory: How to get the most out of the competitive search for STEMM employees.” About 525,000 employees across the government have the skills, or 28.4 percent of the federal workforce.

The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton teamed up to produce the report and a guide to attracting STEMM talent. It provides options for agencies to stay ahead of the hiring curve. They argue that re-branding an agency to appear more attractive to the pool of STEMM candidates doesn’t require a steep marketing budget. Following the lead set by agencies and private companies already well established in the STEMM recruiting world offers a head start in strategy and planning. From there, it’s a matter of maintaining workforce “magnets” to retain employees and bolster recruitment policies.


STEMM recruiting tumbles

“If STEMM hiring is competitive now, it is likely to border on cutthroat in the forecasted hypercompetitive future,” the report says.

STEMM hiring over the past eight years hit its peak in fiscal 2009, according to the report. Four years ago, more than 80 percent of open STEMM positions found new hires.

In fiscal 2012, about 60 percent of open STEMM positions found new hires.

The authors of the study claim it’s not a matter of STEMM talent not existing. They’re just more attracted to private sector jobs that offer “workplace intangibles such as free food, Ping-Pong or a T-shirts-and-shorts culture.”

While it may be a matter of population, location or type of agency, some states have a large advantage in STEMM employees. The majority of STEMM employees are in coastal states, like Virginia, Florida, California and Washington. Texas also ranks in the highest percentages of STEMM employees.

More than half of Rhode Island’s federal workforce is made up of STEMM employees, at 51 percent, according to the study.

The highest concentrations of federal STEMM employees mimic the site locations of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA also has the highest percentage of STEMM employees of all large federal agencies.

While STEMM talent may seem an obvious need for an agency that builds Mars rovers and takes pride in lassoing asteroids, the truth is every agency needs strong STEMM skills. In their report, the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton dissected the recruiting strategies for agencies like NASA and the Army to find patterns and best practices. The private sector also contributed, like Chevron and Adventist Healthcare.

Finding fresh new faces with cool new toys

Every agency offers unique stories and experiences to bait prospective employees.

“Not enough agencies use the appeal of their mission to impress potential employees,” the report says. “They must promote how their mission contributes to the protection, health and safety of the nation, and communicate how it is distinctively desirable to further that mission.”

The federal government naturally attracts people who want to serve their country. The study recommends re-affirming that desire, and actively marketing their value, benefit, and, in some cases, fun workplace atmosphere.

“They must communicate the appeal of particular projects and the work environment, as well as the caliber of colleagues STEMM candidates would find there,” the report says.

In essence, the report suggests a strong marketing approach to attract talent. The Army wants you to “Be All That You Can Be” and “Army Strong.” The National Institute of Standards and Technology lauds its Nobel Prize winners and visits academic conferences to share their work. NASA put an American flag on the moon.

Agencies without cool toys or slogans should either create them or rely on alternative measures, like National Security Agency’s interactive websites or summer work programs.

“NSA hires about 400 students in the summer, sometimes even having them try to solve math problems that are giving the agency’s mathematicians trouble,” the report says. “Somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of them come back and work for the agency when they are finished with school.”

Help from inside and out

The study points out a variety of options for agencies to consider if they want to boost their STEMM recruiting and retain their highly skilled talent pool. These take the form of monetary rewards, fun competitions, dual track employment and peer-to-peer networking.

Agencies need to know their audience, too. Sports fans are familiar with the college bowl system: appearances at the Rose Bowl, Chic-fil-A Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (formerly the Emerald Nut Bowl) place a national spotlight on college football talent and help participating schools recruit better athletes in later seasons.

The Department of Education “runs the National Science Bowl, a nationwide academic competition that tests students’ knowledge in all areas of science. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering has one called the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge, open to teams of undergraduate students who are working on innovative solutions to unmet health and clinical problems,” the report says.

The report also points to scholarship programs at NASA, and the NSA lets employees pursue higher education during the work week with their 20/20 program.

It “allows high-performing STEMM employees to work 20 hours a week and maintain their salaries while spending half the week pursuing higher education,” the study says. That is an important selling point for recruiting and retention, because, as the study says, “STEMM professionals often want to go back to school but keep their job.”

The Office of Personnel Management can play a role, too. The study recommends a STEMM variant of the Presidential Management Fellows Program, and creating guidance to help agencies share STEMM resumes across the federal government.

Finally, Congress could “consider waiving the requirement that employees in STEMM fields be U.S. citizens offer a citizenship path similar to the Department of Defense’s Citizenship for Service clause,” note the authors. Congress could also try to pass legislation to extend NASA’s scholarship authority to agencies craving STEMM talents.


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