professional development class

Skills Marketplace: Building One EPA Through Professional Development

Bringing an innovative private sector practice into the federal workplace isn't always easy.

For the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it took an "aligning of the stars" as the agency was developing it's One EPA Skills Marketplace, according to agency Deputy Chief of Staff John Reeder.

The Skills Marketplace is a voluntary program that expands employee professional development opportunities by allowing employees, with supervisor permission, to spend up to 20% of their time working on a project in any part of the agency, without leaving their home office.

Google famously had a similar policy for its employees, which led to several of that company's most significant product developments of recent years. Other companies, such as 3M have similar programs for their employees.

The EPA saw the 20% time concept as a way to boost employee satisfaction and engagement, while providing developmental opportunities absent the cost and effort of detailing employees.

The EPA spent nearly three years, beginning in 2011, engaged in conversations and pre-decisional involvement (PDI) with stakeholders, including agency leaders, executives, supervisors, and its several unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE), the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), and others.

The program was piloted from May-December 2013 across seven EPA program offices and regional offices. During the pilot, 60 projects were launched and 92 employees participated. Ninety-five (95) percent of participants (staff and managers) said they would recommend it to others. One hundred (100) percent of home office supervisors in the pilot said they would support their staff participating again.

The Skills Marketplace went EPA agency-wide in August 2014. Since that time 240 projects have been posted and 280 applications from agency employees have been received. At the time of this article, 140 applicants had already been placed onto projects following interviews with project leaders.

Reeder said that engaging the agency's stakeholders throughout the process was the key to developing what has become an initiative so successful and popular for the agency that it is being modelled for replication at other agencies across government.

"The journey was equally as important as the destination," said Noha Gaber, Acting Director of the EPA's Office of Internal Communications, who has helped lead the development of the Skills Marketplace since its inception, of the agency's use of PDI in working with stakeholders to develop a program that fulfilled the twin goals of agency mission achievement and employee development.

Gaber said that it took several years of not only conversations with the agency's unions, but also developing senior level champions and awareness among managers that the program had benefits for both their office and for their employees, before the program was ready for prime-time at the agency. She said every program office in headquarters and the field has an executive and program coordinator supporting the Skills Marketplace at the local level, available to answer questions and promote the program.

A few weeks ago, the EPA held a Skills Marketplace job fair at headquarters, complete with remarks from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Many supervisors from the program who attended the fair remarked that their employees were reenergized by working on the projects they found through the Skills Marketplace, Reeder and said.

FEDmanager obtained direct feedback from two Skills Marketplace project participants, Wing and Janet, and one supervisor, Bryan, who used the Skills Marketplace to bring on two employees help with projects in his organization.

Wing Yeung, a program analyst with the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said she was looking for a project that was challenging and different from her daily routine. She signed up to work for a social media project. Working on the project, she learned to use her statistical and analytical skills used in her day job from a different perspective by working on communications. The skills she learned on the project helped Wing in her regular job, but they also added to her resume and led to an offer to work on a new project building on the social media analytical skills she learned while working on the project.

Developing new relationships and friendships in new offices was another bonus takeaway from participating in the Skills Marketplace, Wing said.

Janet Weiner, an attorney advisor with the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention in her day job, also spoke highly of the program. An EPA employee since 1991, Janet said she had been looking for an opportunity to refresh her litigation skills, but still liked her current job, so the Skills Marketplace offered the perfect balance of pursuing a temporary opportunity to bolster that skill set. She negotiated a one year agreement to work on a project as a debarment counsellor in an office that was shorthanded and needed to fill a gap. She was able to successfully help the agency fill that gap, while developing a new skill set and contact to another office.

Another benefit Janet noted was the cross-pollination that occurs when working in multiple offices. She noted the differences in how the offices handled even seemingly mundane tasks, such as administrative tasks, and how that perspective opened the door to new thinking and ideas that was shared across the offices and which improved practices.

Bryan Bloomer, Director, Applied Science Division in the National Center for Environmental Research within the Office of Research and Development, supervised two employees through the Skills Marketplace, used his experience managing teleworkers to frame his thinking about the temporary basis of the project employees. He advertised for positions requiring one day a week of work. His office discussed their needs and advertised the projects on the Skills Marketplace. Interviews followed and candidates were selected.

The excitement of the two employees to work on projects with his office was infectious, Bryan said. Due to a three year hiring freeze, Bryan's office hadn't seen much new blood.

"Healthy organizations have people flowing through them," Bryan remarked, "so this was critical and vital for the health of the organization. This program keeps people fresh and engaged and plugged into the overall agency organization."

One of the project employees Bryan brought on-board was based from a regional office, a perspective that is valuable at his headquarters program office. He said having an employee being able to provide stories from the front lines has been very valuable.

Bryan's second project employee was a recent graduate and came from an enforcement office. Bryan's office is more technically-scientific focused, so the project assigned to the employee allowed them to leverage strong writing skills to produce summaries and write-ups for the office, which he said the employee did at their own pace and enjoyed working on greatly because it kept their academic skills fresh.

Keeping bright minds engaged and professionally developing, especially for recent graduates and new entries to the workforce, is an important aspect of the program from Bryan's view.

"We need to thrill people from the inside out, it's critical to keeping them long-term in the agency," he said.

The Skills Marketplace is an exciting and innovative way of getting the EPA's work done, Bryan said, remarking how he thought the programs web-based platform could one day be a simple application on a phone or computer that is ubiquitous across government.

He said that as managers shift to more project and output based work, the appeal of the Skills Marketplace will become greater, but that there were many managers out there who still needed to start thinking differently about how work gets done.

The EPA's Skills Marketplace, the State Department's FLEX Connect program, and similar programs at other agencies are being used as pilots for a governmentwide program, GovConnect, currently under development by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The EPA is co-leading that effort with OPM, with Gaber's assistance.

GovConnect was borne out of a 2013 project as part of the President's Management Agenda.

GovConnect is still in the pilot phase in several agencies, and FEDmanager will soon report an update on the program's development.

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