One of the biggest challenges facing Federal government agencies is recruiting and retaining skilled IT workers. Providing employees with the right kind of technical training can help solve both problems. The skills challenge was a major focus of the recent MerITocracy summit, where Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., pointed to the growing gap between workforce skills and technological needs and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., called for more vocational training programs that focus on the technology sector. Following the event, MeriTalk sat down with Tony Holmes, Practice Lead for Public Sector Solutions Architects at Pluralsight, a technology workforce development company, to discover how agencies can use learning to address skill gaps and provide career opportunities to employees.
MeriTalk: Almost every industry is having workforce challenges, but perhaps those challenges are greatest in the Federal government because of pending retirements and restrictions on pay that limit competition with the private sector. A number of initiatives across government are trying to bring in top private sector talent, like the U.S. Digital Service. What else can Federal agencies do to help close some of their skills gaps?
Tony Holmes: Agencies need to think outside the box when it comes to recruitment and hiring. For example, a couple of years back we had the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy, which opened cybersecurity training to all parts of the Federal government, whether employees were already in IT or not. Closing the Skills Gap to Meet Agency Objectives Agencies need to capitalize on the Federal government’s distinct edge on the marketplace, which is its incredible strength in building and growing talent internally with training or apprenticeship programs. For example, the armed forces take people with a certain set of traits and train them to become more applicable to current missions. Other agencies need to look more for people with the right traits, such as curiosity and tenacity, and look less at whether they have the right degree. There aren’t enough people in the job market or the college pipeline to meet the demand, so the skills have to come from somewhere else. The government is moving in this direction.
MeriTalk: Pluralsight’s State of Upskilling report found that cybersecurity was the No. 1 skills gap in 2022 across all industries. How do you see organizations responding to that gap, both in government and the private sector?
Holmes: Organizations that are leading in this area are developing a culture of learning. If all organizations are technology organizations, as the press keeps telling us, then all organizations have to be learning organizations. You can’t be a strong technology organization without learning being part of your DNA. Frequently, organizations will claim learning as a top priority, but employees so often say they don’t get sufficient time to train during a typical week. We need to bridge that gap between what we say and what we’re actually doing. Organizations with a significant culture of learning in place take a modernized approach, giving employees access to a broad range of courses and top-down permission to learn. We can only dig our way out of that dearth of skilled IT professionals by making training integral to our workforce with a commitment to learning from the very top of the organization.
MeriTalk: Permission to learn could mean that people take courses in areas that they are interested in but don’t currently work in.
Holmes: Exactly. Technologists are voracious learners; when they have access to all 8,000 courses on Pluralsight’s platform, they will take advantage of them. We see cloud people who want to know a bit more about AI, and they go off and learn it. As long as they’re doing their jobs, why wouldn’t I let them take those courses? It’s just a smart thing. Imagine you have a new AI project coming up, and you can access the skill data for all of your tech employees and find out who is already competent in AI, simply because they had access to that material. Now your AI project can gain momentum quickly because you can take advantage of those skills.
MeriTalk: Skills gaps are obviously a reason for hiring and for training. How should organizations go about determining where their most critical skills gaps are so that they can then hire and train for what they most need?
Holmes: We need to acknowledge that technological progress isn’t linear; it’s exponential. Studies show that many technical skills have a half life of two and a half years. If I’m doing a four-year cybersecurity degree, many of my skills are far less applicable when I graduate than when I started learning them. Or, if I’m working in the cloud, I have to learn constantly. If I’m in a multicloud agency, I have to keep up with Amazon, Azure, and Google, most of which make dozens of changes every week. In order to keep up with the pace of change, we need the ability to surface data about what people know and what they don’t. Pluralsight does this by underpinning our programs with short machine-learning (ML) driven assessments to understand where individual skill gaps are. Then, we address those skills gaps by suggesting learning that is individual to them and focused only on the things they don’t know. For example, if you don’t understand how packets are transmitted within transmission control protocol/ internet protocol, you can come back 10 minutes early from lunch and your Pluralsight account will give you an 8- or 15-minute video to close that skill gap. You’re not going to be overwhelmed with information. And you’re not going to spend two weeks away from work at a boot camp where you might already know half of the information being taught. Agencies struggle with career mobility and staff retention; learning opportunities help with both. They also make agencies more attractive to job candidates.
MeriTalk: How do organizations go about developing a plan to fill their skills gaps – and what is the difference between upskilling and reskilling?
Holmes: Upskilling is the process of making our IT experts better, training them in new technologies. Reskilling is taking non-tech employees, for example, and giving them a tech foundation. We can turn them into really strong technologists and then continue developing more non-tech employees organically. A rising tide lifts all ships. If we raise the general knowledge of technology across everybody in our organization, we can surface more talent in technology.
MeriTalk: Can you tell us about where Pluralsight is in use today and the results you’re seeing?
Holmes: We are working with all branches of the DoD to embrace the learning that will keep us ahead of the bad actors. We worked with the Marine Corps to establish the Information Development Institute. They’ve taken about 350 individuals, both in the United States and abroad, and assigned training programs that leverage Pluralsight’s resources to provide a onestop shop for continuous development of Marine Corps civilians who deliver critical information systems, services, and products. If I need to learn something new or I need to change my responsibilities, I don’t have time to wait for someone to approve and build a course. I need to be able to reach out today, find the information, study it, and then keep doing my job. The Marine Corps is doing such a great job of that, and it’s really exciting to see an organization take that passion for learning and run with it.
MeriTalk: How do you see these training initiatives flying down to the government contractor community, including Federal system integrators (FSIs)?
Holmes: FSIs are huge users of our products; they want to provide the most highly skilled people to the Federal government. We’re working alongside all of the major FSIs to upskill contractors for agencies or for contracts that they’re competing for. FSIs are absolutely passionate about cutting waste, making people smarter, and reducing rework on IT programs for the government. Our platform allows them to be more efficient and effective in serving the government or bidding on IT-focused projects.
MeriTalk: How does Pluralsight stand out from other learning platforms that also upskill tech folks?
Holmes: Action Point four of the Federal Data Strategy highlights using metrics to understand and guide upskilling, so agencies need to understand what employees’ skills and capabilities are. One of the unique things that Pluralsight provides is exactly that. We get insight into where the skill gaps and strengths are. If an agency can find 10 people who can staff an AI project, it won’t lose them to the private sector because they can direct that interest and engage their passion in developing their careers. Without that insight, this simply wouldn’t be possible. Pluralsight can also help agencies develop training in alignment with roles. If a manager knows what the person’s skills need to be, they can see where the gaps are – and have more meaningful one on ones and create stronger individual development plans. Using Pluralsight’s AI and ML technologies lets agencies address each employee’s skill gaps. A few weeks later, when the employee has closed those gaps, we’ll find new skill gaps and address those. In addition, Pluralsight is fastidious about watching the marketplace and making sure that we’re on the leading edge of technology learning, not only in courses, but also sandboxes, labs, and hands-on and hybrid activities to really address a technologist’s skills gaps. We’re leading the way in cloud learning with our acquisition of A Cloud Guru. And our teams work very closely with Amazon, Azure, and Google to make sure that we’re ahead of the curve on cloud knowledge. We’re also working alongside the government with our education teams to broaden and deepen understanding of the zero trust approach to cybersecurity.