Reskilling the federal workforce easier said than done, DHS says

Though the Trump administration has called on agencies to examine their workforces and find ways to reskill their current employees for new jobs of the future, many agencies are still deciphering the demand.

For the Homeland Security Department, it’s still beginning to understand how it will tackle that challenge. Though the department said it supports continuing education for its employees, it’s looking to public-private partnerships to ingest talent into DHS more immediately.

“The federal employees we have now are the ones we have,” Bill Pratt, director of strategic technology management for DHS’ Office of the Chief Technology, said Tuesday at an ACT-IAC discussion on how the department is using emerging technology. “We just can’t wait around. We can’t wait for the latest and greatest smart kids … This person might be a pretty good IT program manager right now. Five [or] six years ago he might have been a GS-11 clerk or something and he just stuck around and learned and did a pretty good job. But he’s not going to be the guy who’s going to do your current modern cyber defense. It’s not going to be a guy who’s going to do the latest and greatest agile, DevOps or open source. That’s why we definitely need to partner with industry. We have to bring in that talent.”

As many agencies know all too well, time and budget constraints have been some of the biggest impediments to training and professional development in recent years — much less the administration’s latest charge to “up-skill” the current workforce for new jobs.

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Most DHS employees already have more than enough work on their plates already, Pratt said. The DHS workforce isn’t growing significantly.

“They’re not sending me more bodies on the federal side,” he said. “That’s not growing. If I grow anything, it’s to … pitch my spend plan so I can go and pitch vendor partners.”

The National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC), a component within DHS, estimated its analysts need at least three weeks of training a year to maintain proficiency. Learning courses have helped in some ways, but NCCIC sees an opportunity for a more formalized program.

“We do have a longer term vision for how we’re going to do business, that involves actually standing up a training branch within our organization,” said Brad Nix, an NCCIC senior adviser. “The challenge that we’re working with right now is how we deconflict the things we’re doing from a larger training function sense at DHS but also training that’s being done out of the NSA as well.”

Pratt said he still sees a value for education in government, but private sector vendors have the expertise that simply outpaces government. Partnerships, however, can help.

“We need to have that coaching,” he said. “We need to have those partners come in and help us, because I just don’t see us catching up.”

DHS is now exploring how it can it make those partnerships happen more easily. The department is creating a specific intake process and management system for the vendor community, Pratt said. The goal is to create a clear line of communication and sight into the department, so vendors know exactly how they can reach a specific executive within DHS and its 22 components.

“What we’re trying to do is get a consistent intake process into DHS where folks can come and pitch what they [have],” Pratt said. “These are our vendors … for services [and] for new ideas. How do you get into DHS? Who do you call?”

From the department’s perspective, DHS executives said they see the need for a database of sorts, which lets them sort through a list of potential vendors and the capabilities they might be able to bring to the table and apply to the agency as a whole.

When Capt. Craig Hodge first got to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he noticed that there was no formalized process or relationship for ICE executives to communicate with industry. Eventually, he advocated for ICE’s IT senior adviser to assume the role of the subcomponent’s point-person for working with industry.

Members of industry have long bemoaned their relationship with DHS, which has spent the past 15 years slowly maturing and unifying as a department.

Cloud center of excellence

As the department continues its efforts to unify, DHS is taking the same approach in its move to the cloud.

Individually, many of DHS’ components are at different stages in their respective moves to the cloud. To collect best practices and lessons learned from each of them, DHS is setting up its cloud center of excellence.

“We’re basically pulling all of the experiences and ideas from all of the other components and                    bringing them to headquarters and then distributing them back out,” Pratt said. “We have our big seven, major components with lots of power [and] lots of money. But then [we have] another …15 smaller offices that just don’t have the staff or the folks to do this kind of thing.”

DHS’ new chief information officer, John Zargardi, is leading the charge behind the department’s cloud center of excellence. He’s given the department an ambitious goal of moving 50 applications to the cloud by the end of the year, Pratt said.