VBA’s Talent Management Office plans the future workforce
Developing talent, providing opportunities for employees, and planning for the future workforce are important for every agency. To find out how they do talent development and workforce planning in a large office, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Executive Director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Office of Talent Management, Jeff Smith.
Tom Temin: Let’s start with the main challenges of managing talent in an organization like VBA.
Jeff Smith: Well, I think the major challenge for VBA is no different than many other federal agencies. It’s certainly being able to hire, train and retain a skilled workforce, it’s being able to invest employees and keep them professionally developed and engaged in our mission where they make their careers with VBA or VA as a whole, the big VA family. So we continue to try to innovate in our ways of doing things. So I think that’s probably our biggest challenge is the workforce.
Tom Temin: And at the VBA, in particular, give us an idea of the composition of the workforce. How many people are, say, adjudicators who have to make discretionary judgments on claims for benefits, etc.? How many are office? How many might be tech-oriented? What types of people fill the different buckets you have?
Jeff Smith: Well, I don’t have specific numbers on that. VBA currently has approximately 26,000 employees. I would say that 80% of our staff are focused on the mission of providing benefits to our veterans, while we have the remaining 20% who fall more into support roles and administrative type activities. We rely heavily on the VA department for other administrative, technology or IT support activities. So we also have them watching our backs. But I think it’s an 80-20 split. Really, the majority of people are really focused on the day-to-day processing of these benefits for our veterans.
Tom Temin: What are the skills and talents in general that require?
Jeff Smith: It’s a good question. We have a number of what we would consider mission critical professions, those who actually review medical information to determine benefits. We have staff in the call centers who are in contact with veterans every day, who must have this specialized experience and understand the programs. And then, from an educational standpoint, we have a number of educational programs that support our veterans. So we have staff who deal with processing these types of requests and connecting the private sector with educational institutions to ensure that we have the support that we need for our veterans.
Tom Temin: So that means people need to know a lot about the programs themselves, the regulations, the details, the benefits they help people get. But it seems they also need to know what is happening in the world in terms of the kinds of services and education programs veterans might want to avail themselves of.
Jeff Smith: Absolutely, I feel comfortable saying that the work we do is very, very complex. And it takes the commitment of a wide range of government agencies, as well as, as I mentioned, private sector entities to provide those services to the wide range of veterans they seek. And again, these are disability claims, these are education claims. We help veterans and find them jobs and that sort of thing. So certainly a very complex job that requires specialized experience.
Tom Temin: And so looking at the level of the individual employee, what approach does VBA take to ensure that their skills are up to date, or that if people want to move up the ladder or change jobs, they can learn the skills they need to get there?
Jeff Smith: Well, I think for starters, feedback from our staff is really essential and VBA has always made customer experience and seeking feedback a priority. We continue to rely on our all-employee survey as the main source of feedback from our staff, which we have seen an upward trend and positive results in participation rates since 2019. It is therefore essential that we solicit the feedback from our staff on what their personal needs are from a development perspective. But we have worked closely with the Department and other administrations within VA to create a framework for leadership and development. In doing so, it allowed us to index key leadership skills and development activities across five levels of leadership, from emerging leaders to senior executives, and provide a more personalized approach to employee development based on experience and grade level works extremely well for us, and even outside. the scope of the frame. VBA also offers a number of other programs, internal to VBA, such as the Assistant Manager Development Program, Leadership Enhancement and Enrichment Programs and Emerging Leaders which all relate directly to the core competencies of GO. Employees also have the ability to take advantage of our internal web-based courses through our talent management system. It gives the employee control of when and what courses they need to progress, just a lot of great opportunities. Recently, the VA Director of Learning provided LinkedIn Learning, this service, where every VA employee has the ability to go to LinkedIn and search for opportunities to meet their personal needs.
Tom Temin: So it seems like all that effort is a pretty good element in the effort to retain people so you don’t have a lot of turnover. Do you have anything else to do in the area of retention to keep people in VBA because as you point out complex skills are hard to replace?
Jeff Smith: I can assure you that VBA recognizes the importance of investing in our employees in a way that supports the mission of caring for our veterans, but also meets employee expectations. We are therefore very attached to this mission and we ensure that the employee has these opportunities. And that alone requires our training staff to continually seek program improvements. Just because it worked yesterday doesn’t mean it will work tomorrow. We also need to focus on the timing of training to ensure it meets our operational requirements, but also aligns with the career progression of employees. It is not an easy task. I can attest that we are committed to developing and implementing world-class training programs to support business excellence and the growth of leaders from within. So it’s a real partnership. We have resources that we can provide to the employee, but we also need the employee to come to the table to tell us what they personally need from a professional development program. We will therefore continue this partnership to ensure that we continue to be successful in the future.
Tom Temin: And does your office have a responsibility to look ahead and see what the future manpower needs for VBA are?
Jeff Smith: Absolutely. Our HR workforce planning staff focus on succession planning. In this, we must work with Program Managers and Learning Officers to ensure that we are building a pool of healthy employees to fill our mission critical positions. And again, all of this requires coordination and collaboration across the business, to make sure we meet everyone’s needs. But succession planning is the cornerstone of our program here in talent management.
Tom Temin: And now that we’re over a year into this whole pandemic and how has that changed governments and all of telecommuting, what has been the effect on VBA and how have you coped?
Jeff Smith: VBA, like many other government agencies, is of necessity using the pandemic as a springboard to leverage creative virtual tools to meet our development needs. VBA moved its in-house development programs to platforms such as WebEx and Adobe, as well as Microsoft Teams, to simulate the classroom that continues to succeed. A great achievement we have is our distinguished speaker series which reaches over 300 attendees each session. We had topics ranging from improving creativity and culture to resume writing. A great success story then. The virtual learning landscape for us has been a real game-changer and will force us to rely heavily on technology over traditional school in the future. The development team and employees have adapted exceptionally well to the virtual teaching and learning environment. And we will continue to innovate the technology used to meet our needs. So that put us on our heels, initially, but we quickly branched out into the world of virtual learning and we’ve been very, very successful.
Tom Temin: Jeff Smith is executive director of the Office of Talent Management at the Veterans Benefit Administration. Thank you very much for joining me.
Jeff Smith: Thank you. I appreciate your time.