The Department of Energy (DOE) was born, of all places, underneath a football stadium. The organization traces its roots back to the Manhattan Project, the clandestine program launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to develop atomic weapons, which commenced in an underground makeshift laboratory below the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. It was at this site that Italian-born scientist Enrico Fermi successfully conducted the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Following the end of World War II, the network of labs that comprised the Manhattan Project was transferred to the civilian authorities of the newly created Atomic Energy Commission, which later grew into—and was absorbed by—the Cabinet-level DOE.
Today, the DOE has the crucial responsibility of formulating and executing the United States’ energy policy, particularly in the realm of nuclear power. This vital, high-stakes and constantly evolving mission necessitates a knowledgeable, qualified workforce. Hence, it is imperative that the DOE’s 14,000 employees and more than 120,000 outside contractors have access to educational content that is up-to-date, and changes with new developments in the energy industry.
“It’s a tremendous challenge, but I also find it an interesting and fun challenge,” said Jody Hudson, chief learning officer and director of the office of human capital management’s innovations and solutions at the DOE. “Training and development of people is important to us, and it’s also something that’s very near and dear to my heart. As chief learning officer, I’m responsible for ensuring that the entire workforce—contractors, as well as federal employees—receives the training needed to do their jobs effectively, efficiently and safely. For the contractor workforce, it’s largely done through the way we structure the contracts. We have requirements within the contracts that the contractors themselves ensure their employees are effectively trained. On the federal employee side, we do needs assessments on a periodic basis to identify what the training needs are. We are also defining the core competencies that are needed to execute certain important functions across the department.”
“Competencies for traditional jobs have changed so dramatically and quickly, and they keep changing because of technology, new approaches of getting business done and new focuses,” added Claudia Cross, chief human capital officer and director of the office of human capital management at the DOE. “It doesn’t last 20 years—it doesn’t even last 20 minutes, sometimes. You hired somebody 10 years ago who was state-of-the-art at the moment, and they are as old-fashioned as they come now for many of our occupations. It’s a much more difficult challenge than it was 10 years ago.”
The DOE uses mandatory individual development training (IDT) plans to ensure its workforce’s skills stay current. “We require every employee to develop an IDT and sit down with their manager and systematically go through a process to identify what they need to develop, not only to do their jobs better today, but also to help position them on a path to achieve their desired career goals while here at the Department of Energy,” Hudson said. “In the development of these IDTs, we identify what that training is, both formal and informal. That formal training could be classroom training, taking a course at a university or reading various books on different topical areas.”
Limited capital compounds the difficulties that Hudson and Cross face in developing and delivering learning programs for DOE employees and their ancillaries outside the organization. It’s compelled them to be very creative and open to considering new methods and modalities, Hudson said. “That forces us to be more strategic with regards to the limited resources we have, and make sure that the training and development that we offer aligns with the strategic needs of the organization and that we target those scarce resources in a way that maximizes the value of training to allow our people to do their work efficiently, effectively and safely. We are in a transition in many ways. The training here in the department has largely been decentralized in the past, and we’re moving now toward a more centralized approach. My job is to try to move us more in that direction.”
The dividends of that new approach already are beginning to pay off, notably in the A-76 competitive sourcing process within the President’s management agenda. Under the Circular A-76 policy, managers within federal departments and agencies can compete with companies in the private sector to perform certain services for their organizations. “It’s the process by which that competition can occur, because it’s really under the procurement umbrella,” Cross said. “It’s mixing the procurement-private sector world with federal employees. It’s a pretty detailed process that the procurement folks and us would have to follow. All agencies are looking at the types of functions that could be most effectively put under that process to gain efficiencies for accomplishment of all of our missions.”
The DOE training function recently won an A-76 competition, beating out contenders in the private sector with a plan that Hudson projects will bring the organization cost savings of about $39 million over the next five years. “I see that as being a major milestone in getting away from a decentralized approach and toward a more centralized approach for training and development across the department,” he said. “That’s going to be a major advance and the best use of resources, because we can take an enterprise-level view of what the training needs are across the department, target the resources to strategically fill those gaps and just better manage the resources we have to make sure we get the most bang for our buck.”
Part of that strategy entails making better use of the technology involved in employee education. Hudson and his team are utilizing technology to systematically identify skills gaps in competencies like human resources, IT, acquisition management, project management and financial management, and gauge employees’ progress. The DOE also uses online platforms as part of a blended suite of learning offerings. “The Department of Energy has a history of using a blended approach with regards to training and development,” Hudson explained. “We rely very heavily on technology and online learning. We have an online learning system available to all employees where they can access training, as well as register for formal training courses that are offered throughout the department. We deliver formal classroom-style courses. We offer opportunities for people to do rotational assignments that give them a chance to move into new arenas, learn new skills and broaden their thinking about the interconnectedness of the work we do across the department. We are trying to promote a culture that supports the idea of continuous learning, both formal and informal. There are a lot of different resources available to staff here.”
The DOE just adopted a new online learning system, which, although live, is still a work in progress, Hudson said. “We’re continuing to evolve our online learning system, which we’ve had up and operational for approximately two months. There is a very broad array of capabilities that we’ll be implementing within the online learning system.” However, the DOE isn’t a newcomer when it comes to online learning. “DOE was one of the early pioneers in online learning in government,” Cross said. “We were one of the early folks that had a well-run, well-defined and well-produced online learning system. We helped to influence the way the rest of the government created what’s now called E-Learn under the President’s management agenda.”
After the DOE runs the online learning system for a while, it will have definitive metrics around the effectiveness of educational programs, Hudson said. “Those metrics are too new to quantify in a meaningful way the results of that approach. We’re still in a transition. The online learning system is part of an enterprise resource planning system, and we want to be able to fully exploit those capabilities so we can establish better, clearer linkages between what we spend on training and the performance metrics that we achieve in terms of closing gaps, so we can better identify how effective that training is. Full use of that online learning system will ultimately allow us to identify where we’re going to be able to achieve better cost savings, what areas of our training delivery programs are the most effective and efficient, and retool or eliminate those areas of our training and development processes where we’re not realizing strong value.”
Up until now, the DOE has collected feedback through questionnaires and interviews conducted after training events. While this softer anecdotal evidence is mostly favorable, more concrete indicators are needed to run learning programs optimally and get support and buy-in from organizational leaders. “This has always been difficult—how you measure return on investment in training is one of those things people write books about,” Cross said. “It’s one of those things where if you don’t measure it, nobody cares. Secondly, you never know where you’re getting your best value if you don’t look at those measures. I can’t manage a program if I can’t understand it. I need some sorts of indicators. That’s a competency we’re lacking. For the most part, (the federal government) is trying to help and solve problems. We’re not trying to run a business. What I’m trying to say in DOE—and I think you’ll find it in a lot of other places in government—is that we have to run this as a business. We owe it to the public to run this as a business, and we owe it to our managers and employees to get the mission accomplished in the best way that we can.”
Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org