Retention is what wins the talent war

Recruiting new workers is only part of the battle in what is often spoken of as a war for talent in government contracting. Retaining them is what ultimately wins the day.

Which means companies have to pay particular attention to career development paths of their employees and how they acquire new technology skills often on their employers’ dollars, industry executives said Thursday at a Washington Business Journal breakfast event.

Human capital has become more front-and-center given Amazon’s standing up of its second headquarters in Washington, D.C. but many other factors were already there such as short supply of technically skilled people and changes in the technologies they work with.

Talent has been top of mind for since two-year-old Perspecta it opened for business through a merger of three businesses with much different cultures, from which a new culture had to be created that people want to work for and stay at.

During a fireside chat, CEO Mac Curtis said employee referrals are a metric that Perspecta keeps close tabs on. Thirty-five percent of the last 2,700 people Perspecta hired were through those employee referrals, he said.

Then there is how to keep the 14,000  and growing employees Perspecta has and help them continually gain new skills. Curtis said the company has increasingly emphasized certificates in specific technologies like the Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure clouds, as well as ServiceNow.

“Whatever we think is needed in that managed service environment. We pay for the course, we pay them to take it and we give them a bonus when they get it,” Curtis said.

As Curtis pointed out, the legacy Vencore piece of what is now Perspecta traces its roots to Lockheed Martin and General Electric Aerospace. Many of those workers were more likely to get masters’ degrees in aerospace or systems engineering.

Chantilly, Virginia-based Perspecta still supports employees who want to go down that post-graduate degree route, but what customers want is changing and thus the way employees get the skills to do that work also changes.

“If you want to play in the cloud transformation business, if you want to be Microsoft Gold or Amazon Premier, it’s not like it used to be,” Curtis added. “There’s a lot of training and certifications that you have to have.”

Perspecta is far from the only company involved in the government market that has the talent retention question high on the agenda, particularly as the nature of work changes.

“The skills that are in the workplace right now didn’t even exist 10 years ago,” said Charles Thomas, CEO of software engineering company Clear Cloud, during a panel discussion. “You have to be able to get people who can come in and are pure problem solvers. We don’t hire for a position per se, we hire for a skill set. There is the challenge of automation, full stack development, understanding cloud and understanding the security of cloud. So it’s much more nuanced now.”

Michelle O’Hara, chief human resources officer at Science Applications International Corp., said her company is focusing on creating the kind of employee experience that motivates them to go to work and resembles what they see outside of their job.

“Why I think digital is so important too is because you can’t have that huge contrast between what you experience at home versus what happens when you get to work,” O’Hara said. “We espouse innovation but if we don’t provide the infrastructure and experience that allows for agile, innovative thinking, then we haven’t delivered on that promise.”

Jeff Brody, ManTech International’s chief HR officer, touted his company’s partnerships with Purdue University Global and education technology outfit Skillsoft as tools in the toolbox to help continually iterate and advance employees’ skillsets.

But he cautioned that effort comes with a caveat, especially as employees update their LinkedIn profiles with new skills and certifications they acquire.

“Who do they get a call from? All the competition. So you have to have a very strong mobility program to move the talent to where that work content is, so they can practice what they learned,” Brody said.

“The other dimension is, managers don’t want to let go of this talent. So there are big cultural shifts that I see occurring across the landscape in terms of this whole upskilling and reskilling component because it’s not just about the pure mechanics of the process, it’s the whole ecosystem that comes with it.”

For its part, technology accelerator Dcode has focused on the community aspect of their workforce. Director of Operations Whitney Jones said the company switched from having performance-based bonuses to an employee profit pool instead that everyone shares at the year-end.

“We’re so mission-driven that we wanted to ensure that when people are at Dcode, even if you’re an administrative assistant or you are the VP of business development, I would say they’re all working toward the same goal,” Jones said.

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also connect with him on LinkedIn.

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