Given an early taste of ‘workforce reshaping,’ how HUD is retraining its employees for the future

As many agencies are thinking now about how they’ll streamline operations, cut unnecessary programs and people and retrain remaining staff to handle new work, the Housing and Urban Development has been an early adopter of “workforce reshaping.”

The agency’s lost more than 2,000 employees over the past few years — shrinking from a workforce of roughly 9,600 to 7,400. And HUD’s move to a human resources shared services provider is a large part of those cuts.

The challenges HUD had will sound familiar to many agencies. In fact, many departments are facing the same challenges, and the Trump administration’s reorganization initiatives are pushing agencies to streamline and reshape their workforces for the future.

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“We didn’t have an opportunity to do the succession planning, the workforce planning, [or] any of the planning things we needed to do,” HUD Chief Human Capital Officer Towanda Brooks said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We didn’t really have an eye into what the organization needed. I couldn’t tell you immediately what our retirement eligibility is for the agency as a whole, or for Public and Indian Housing or how many hires I did over a quarter. I couldn’t give you that information because we weren’t strategic enough, and we didn’t have the ability to pull the data quick[ly] enough, because we spent all of our time on the transactional work.”

Brooks, who began her professional career as a student trainee at the Defense Department and then joined the Agriculture Department as a GS-5 before working in nearly every area of human resources at a handful of agencies, recently won a prestigious Presidential Meritorious Rank Award for her work on streamlining HUD’s hiring process and moving the agency to an HR shared services provider.

The department’s HR shop had too much of that transactional work on its plate. It made too many mistakes, and those mistakes led to too many audit reports and citations from the Office of Personnel Management, Brooks said.

The move to a shared services provider meant that HUD lost more than 50 people from its human resources office, and Brooks hasn’t been able to hire those spots back. She said she’s filled a few key positions and brought on a new data scientist, statistician and wellness expert.

But the transition hasn’t always been easy.

“We had to go through a lot of workforce reshaping and restructuring,” she said. “We lost a lot of people, to be totally honest. We lost a lot of people through VERA/VSIP, through retirements [and] through transfers to other agencies because they weren’t quite sure what the work would look like. [For] those that stayed, we re-trained them.”

With much of the transactional HR work off the table, Brooks said her employees needed to learn different skills. Their work became more strategic, and employees needed to learn how to communicate more effectively with their customers.

“We spent a lot of time on data and how to analyze data and present the data,” she said. “[We taught them] how to be that person that’s in between the shared services provider and the program office and how to make that relationship work. … When you’re doing staffing or classification position management, a lot of times you’re not thinking about what accountability really means. You’re thinking about do I get my job done. We had to help them think about accountability in a different way.”

Brooks said she realized her employees performed better at their training classes as a cohort, so the department brought instructors to HUD to teach appropriations, strategic thinking and project management.

For many HUD employees, retirement is looming in the next two-to-three years. Brooks said she’s developing a corporate learning plan that identifies skills gaps among current HUD employees.

“We have an aging workforce, so our goal is to create a pipeline of applicants into HUD, into entry-level and mid-career and senior level positions and within HUD, to make sure that our workforce here has the same type of opportunities so that we’re developing our employees at all levels,” she said. “We’re identifying and growing and supporting our leaders, our technical experts and then our essential employees so they can do the work and our total workforce is able to accomplish the mission.”

Brooks said she’s noticed the impact these changes have left on her remaining employees.

“Going through so much change has impacted our employees too,” Brooks said. “I want to make sure that I’m taking care of our employees and making sure that they’re being developed. We’ve been very innovative in how we accomplish work.”

For example, six employees from Brooks’ office built the curriculum for and planned an exceptional leaders conference for federal employees both in and outside of HUD. More than 500 people attended the conference in person or via webcast.

“We never would have been able to put on a conference like that if we had not been training our people on project management and allowing them to work across our organization and be innovative,” Brooks said.

Now, she’s trying to push that mentality past the Office of the Chief Human Capital Office and to other HUD program offices. The ultimate goal, Brooks said, is to help the department be more productive with a smaller workforce.

And that innovation is making a difference in how HUD employees perceive their experiences at work, she added.

The department has slowly improved its employee engagement scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey over the past few years. HUD’s overall score sat at 57 percent in 2014, but in 2017, engagement rose to 69 percent.

“For some agencies, 69 [percent] might not seem that great, but for us to see the continual improvement shows that we’re dedicated to making the agency a great place for our employees, and that’s because we’re trying to engage at every level,” Brooks said.

The department is also continuing to make improvements to its hiring process.

“This has been an agency priority,” Brooks said. “We’re continuing to do it, so it’s not a one-and-done.”

After working through a backlog of new hires, Brooks worked with the agency’s program offices to reduce the time HUD spent planning for hiring from 112 days to 12.

HUD’s Office of Chief Human Capital Officer released new hiring guidance a few weeks ago, which documents the improvements the agency’s been making, Brooks said.