Online tool lets VA employees conceive career paths

Wednesday - 4/18/2012, 5:12am EDT

John Sepulveda, assistant secretary for human resource and administration, Veterans Affairs

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CAMBRIDGE, Md.--The Veterans Affairs Department is giving employees a roadmap for their career.

VA created a new tool, called MyCareer@VA, to help address two of the biggest challenges agencies face when it comes to human resources: retention and knowledge management.

"MyCareer@VA is primarily a tool to help our employees to chart out their career at VA and also identify what are the gaps they need to fill in terms of educational requirements, training, rotational assignments or certifications they will need to move from a GS-5 to a GS-15 in HR or acquisition or IT, which are some of the emission critical occupations MyCareer focuses on," said John Sepulveda, VA's assistant secretary for human resources and administration, at the FedSMC conference Tuesday.

The portal, which VA released late last fall, currently helps employees in 10 occupational fields, but VA is adding five more later this year. Sepulveda said those 10 fields cover about 40 percent of all agency employees and eventually MyCareer@VA will include all mission critical occupations.

John Sepulveda, assistant secretary for human resources and administration, Veterans Affairs Department (VA photo)

"It's about retention. It's about career development and it's about building a bench," he said. "The idea here is to the extent that people are able to identify what they need to perform at the highest level of their occupation and get the training, which we would be providing, you have a higher performing employee."

Multiple administrations have tried to change agencies' culture

The development of high performing employees and organizations has been a staple of the last three administrations.

Under President Bill Clinton, agencies reviewed their missions through the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, which took a broad approach.

Then President George W. Bush initiated the performance management initiative using a scorecard to oversee progress against specific back-office goals such as HR, or technology or financial management.

Finally, President Barack Obama brought in a mix of both approaches with his high-priority goals and dashboards around governmentwide initiatives such as technology and performance.

"We have been trying to create a high performing organization at VA," Sepulveda said. "We can't get there unless we invest in employees, training, standards and systems."

The MyCareer@Va is just one of several systems, or tools, the agency is using to improve.

Sepulveda said there are some basic things all agencies could do, including creating a social contract with employees on what their personal and agency goals are, and identifying the mission of the agency from the employees' viewpoint and invest in training so the workers contribute to the objectives.

At the Defense Logistics Agency, relating employees to the mission is a key success factor.

Brad Bunn, DLA's human resources director, said the agency surveys employees every 18 months about how their behavior relates to meeting mission, consistency, adaptability and involvement. The next culture survey will be in the next couple of months, he said.

"We are speculating whether we will see different results because we are asking a few simple questions, including how does the work employees do every day impact the agency's mission? And how do you work with or collaborate with organizations in DLA?" Bunn said.

DLA has been doing the workforce survey for about eight years and now can use the employee feedback and mash it up with business data to get a better idea of how high performing the organization really is.

HUD asks managers, employees for ideas

The Housing and Urban Development is taking a different approach to creating a high performing organization, partly because it had a much steeper hill to climb than DLA and VA.

"Our focus has been on feedback and discussion with employees," said Karen Newton Cole, acting chief human capital officer at HUD.

She said this includes both managers at the Senior Executive Service level as well as employees working outside of Washington.

"Last year, we hosted a SES program and talked to them about what they see at HUD," Newton Cole said. "It was the first time someone asked them as a group what they see at the agency and how to make things better. It was a hard conversation at first because it starts with all that's wrong at the agency. But eventually, you get to what does work."

She said the SESers all agreed to measure performance consistently and if they didn't achieve it, no one would receive an outstanding evaluation.

"We are building our organization from the ground up," Newton Cole said. "We are building trust and creating trust with employees so they know mission comes first."

This week, HUD is holding a two-day session with employees to have more of those hard conversations about what isn't working and how it can be fixed.

The agency also is creating a new SES performance plan.

"We are working with our employee unions about what accountability should look like at the line level," Newton Cole said.

VA addressing retention and knowledge management

Many of the HR and performance initiatives are aimed at fixing systems that have been ignored or neglected over the last 10-15 years.

Sepulveda said, for instance, VA's the MyCareer@VA tool helps educate employees what it takes to move up through the ranks, including what gaps they need to fill.

"It allows them to have a conversation with their supervisors to help them fill those gaps," he said. "It really is about allowing all of our employees, not some employees who are able to connect up with a good mentor, to engage in their own career development. I think in the end VA is better for it because we will keep those folks and we're going to benefit from their additional performance and competencies."

VA also is building a bench so when workers retire or leave, others can move in more easily.

"The way we build a bench is identifying what our people need to perform at the highest level," he said. "The other thing it does it helps our employees stay with VA. We are investing a lot in those employees. If they have a career path, they're on that path, they are getting support from their supervisors and getting the training they need, they will want to stay at VA. It costs the taxpayer significant dollars whenever there is turnover. We want to keep folks at VA serving our veterans. We want the most experienced, best trained and most inspired employees serving our veterans. One of the ways we do that is through MyCareer."

Sepulveda said VA built the portal internally through contractors and with occupational experts.

He said other agencies could use many of the occupations the site covers as acquisition, IT or financial management jobs have several commonalities across government.

"This is really about the democratizing of career paths," Sepulveda said. "Anyone can create a clear vision of their career. And it gives us a richer picture of where each employee is and what we need to know about workforce planning."

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