Government agencies have initiated myriad efforts to attempt to bring on private sector workers that have been impacted by sweeping layoffs in the tech industry, such as a recent governmentwide job fair hosted by the Office of Personnel Management. But with hiring data from that event currently unavailable, and an overall lack of analysis for hiring statistics governmentwide, the ultimate value of such events remains a point of speculation.
OPM collaborated with the Tech to Gov coalition—a group of seven nonprofit organizations and an academic center that formed in response to the widespread layoffs—to create a Jan. 18 virtual forum and job fair. More than 50 agencies—federal, state and local—attended the event looking to recruit from among more than 1,800 attendees. The event—which Jennifer Anastasoff, founder and executive director of one of the coalition’s organizations the Tech Talent Project—noted was put together in six weeks—facilitated more than 3,800 one-on-one conversations and exceeded the original goal of 250 candidates and at least 20 government agencies.
“We were overwhelmed with the amount of interest that we had from both parties,” Kyleigh Russ, senior advisor in the hiring experience group at OPM, told Nextgov. “For applicants, we were like, ‘yes, welcome, welcome, welcome’; on the agency side, we also had overwhelming interest to the point where we had a waitlist that we were not able to move people off of. So we know that there’s outstanding interest in this, which is a great problem to have, but is a problem because we did have organizations that weren’t able to come.”
At the event, employers categorized 3% of conversations as interviews, 26% as screening conversations, 45% as pipeline conversations and 25% as not a fit.
Moreover, attendees’ work experience ran the gamut: 41% had zero to five years of experience, 18% had six to nine years of experience, and another 41% of attendees had 10 or more years of experience. Roles ranged from cybersecurity and data analytics to product management, engineering and customer experience.
“There’s a moment right now where folks in the tech industry—who have critical skill sets for our federal, state and local governments—are thinking about where they can make the most impact and make the biggest difference at mid and senior levels,” Anastasoff told Nextgov.
However, despite widespread interest in the event, OPM is not yet able to provide figures for how many event attendees were given job offers and how many accepted offers directly from or shortly after the event.
“We will have data in the coming months [to a] year as to what actually happened after the event. Were some of these people converted immediately after? Were some of the people converted six months after?” Russ said. “I’m really interested, personally, in what happens five years from now.”
Russ pointed to the screener interviews as a good sign, adding that the event is also “a way for [government] to plant the seed for later. So that tech workers, maybe they’re gonna go get another job at an amazing big tech company, but now they know that these types of roles do exist in federal government. And when they’re ready to make the change, we hope that we can be ready to scoop those people up when the time is right.”
The lack of available hiring figures is an issue governmentwide, according to Dave Hinchman, director of Information Technology and Cybersecurity at the Government Accountability Office, which does not have reports on hiring fairs or events, despite noting that many agencies participate in them. Instead, he stated that Congress has been leaning in on recruitment challenges for specific agencies.
“No one knows,” Hinchman said. “That’s one thing that the federal government and big government suffers from—there really is no whole of government idea about where the critical skills gaps are—how many key positions really need to be filled? You always hear these estimates that vary incredibly about how many empty IT or cyber positions are in the government right now, and it’s because no one really knows.”
According to Hinchman, keeping track of hires should be a responsibility at the agency level. He added that, ideally, these figures would go on a governmentwide dashboard “to really understand where the problem [is and] where your weak spots are.”
He added that, with an understanding of where those gaps are located, perhaps an agency can send workers to another agency on detail to help them out.
“Until that is all put into one central location, I think no one’s really going to ever have a great handle,” Hinchman said. “It’s up to each agency to really understand what their needs are and where their gaps are because they know best.”
Hinchman noted that while hiring events or career fairs like this one can be helpful, “if you’re not doing those events in the context of a broader strategy, you run the risk of not being very efficient with your resources.”
He pointed to some GAO reports that outline a successful recruitment strategy framework. The plan should have: “(1) strategic direction; (2) supply, demand and gap analyses; and (3) solution implementation, along with monitoring the plan’s progress to address” competency and staffing needs. That way, after examining where gaps exist in the workforce, an agency can have “an eye out for the folks that [it] need[s] to fill those key slots,” Hinchman said.
OPM Deputy Director Rob Shriver noted that the Tech to Gov event is one piece of OPM’s overall recruitment strategy.
“We really want to be viewed as driving the federal government toward being a model employer, and model employers don’t just post job announcements on a job board and hope that candidates come,” Shriver said. “Model employers go find talent where it is and makes sure that the talent knows about great opportunities that are available and actively recruits to try to get the best people on board.”
But hard new-hire numbers are not the only proof of an event’s success. Hinchman added that career fairs and other events are a good way for an agency to get out there, build relationships and meet potential candidates.
Adding to Hinchman’s point, Erica Ford, principal and U.S. government and public sector people advisory services leader at Ernst & Young, stated that government needs to build relationships with people before the recruitment process or before they have applied, and she encouraged government to increase these opportunities beyond the recruitment process.
For example, she suggested hosting a tech showcase to highlight innovative or cool technologies being used in government, to show the mission in action and bring it to life without focusing on recruitment. Ford added that agencies should give people the opportunity to meet hiring managers before an interview, such as a meet and greet or luncheon with leaders to learn more about the agency, culture and ethos, while building a relationship between prospective candidates and an agency.
“The more interaction you have with candidates before you make an offer, the higher likelihood that they are going to accept the offer,” Ford told Nextgov. “It’s diversifying how they build those relationships. And those relationships don’t have to be right before the interview, it could be just keeping a community of people that are interested and you build that relationship over time. It can be one of those go-to pools for talent when you need it.”
Shriver told Nextgov that the Tech to Gov event is “a way to bring tech talent [and] agencies together, so they can exchange information about the jobs that are available and what the interests are.” He added that in light of tough competition for tech talent, the government has been “trying to get the word out.”
According to post event feedback provided by OPM and Tech Talent Project, 73% of respondents found the event valuable and 67% of attendees said the event increased their interest in government tech roles. Additionally, 88% of employers found the event valuable and 66% said they believe that candidates they connected with would apply to their agency.
“These are people now who don’t just think about government as a monolith,” Anastasoff said. “These are technologists who have gotten to hear stories from NASA, the United States Digital Service, the VA, the Department of Agriculture, the General Services Administration. These are agencies that normally folks in the tech world aren’t going to know about, and now they have stories about impact. And our hope is, afterwards, that whether or not they end up seeking or landing roles in any of the government, that they have a much better understanding of the role our government plays and the critical role it plays in society.”
Russ and Anastasoff added that it will be important to check in with attendees over the next few months and years to see how it goes and how long it takes attendees to work for the government, if at all.
“One of my big takeaways is that the federal government is really in need of those skilled technologists,” Russ said. “We know that many of those technologists are excited about the prospects of impact and interesting work and that there’s no shortage of that in federal government…So my biggest takeaway from the event is that the time is right now and clearly there’s interest on both sides to bring in the talent that we need to make strides in tech to serve the country.”
Several people involved in the effort suggested there would be more events like this in the future, though the coalition has yet to plan a concrete follow-on.
“I would like this to be the first of many engagements in which the government is proactive about recruiting, but also hiring,” Angie Quirarte, federal partnerships director at the Tech Talent Project, told Nextgov. “I’m hoping that this event, and whatever other engagements and partnerships that we do, will continue to evolve the thinking of our federal collaborators and government collaborators to get them to see what it’s like to build a modern, technical or big organization that can deliver on its mission and understand why it’s important to have technologists at the table.”
This is the first in a multipart series examining the current state of tech hiring in the federal government.