The White House and several federal agencies have unveiled a new fellowship program, dubbed the Digital Corps, that aims to create a cohort of diverse, young technology leaders who will pursue careers in public service.
The two-year fellowship, which will kick off later this year, will launch with 30 people who will spend 2022 working on a range of areas, from coronavirus response to cybersecurity, getting training and coaching along the way. The program is the product of a collaboration between various federal agencies, including the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of Management and Budget, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
It comes at a time when CIOs in the federal government are desperately in need of young talent with skills in everything from software engineering to data science and digital design to replace aging workers. A recent audit by the Government Accountability Office, another federal agency, concluded that federal government is “not well-positioned” to address the skills gaps in its scientific and tech workforces. Only about a fifth of its tech workforce is under 40 years old.
“To provide best-in-class service delivery, agencies must have the right combination of workforce talent in place as their existing personnel accelerate towards retirement,” said Clare Martorana, federal CIO at the OMB, in a statement announcing the initiative.
Managing that generational transition is going to be a huge challenge, not least because almost every business now sees software as core to its future success, which has triggered an intense battle for tech talent. As government departments can’t match the pay and perks offered by the private sector, they need to find ways to motivate tech talent to stick around, say recruiters.
By branding its fellowship program a “Digital Corps”, which has echoes of historic, mission-driven initiatives such as President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, the Biden administration is clearly hoping those who sign up for it will see it as the beginning of a long-term career to use technology to change government for the better.
With an intake of just 30 people, though, the program isn’t going to have much of an initial impact. There are currently 500,000 unfilled jobs in the cybersecurity arena alone in the U.S. according to industry estimates, with plenty of those in the public sector.
The Digital Corps’ supporters, who include Nick Sinai, a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration, see the program eventually expanding to include thousands of recruits, assuming it’s successful.
It will also complement existing efforts to attract more—and more diverse—tech talent to government, such as the U.S. Digital Service, which aims to recruit private-sector technologists to work on fixed-term federal tech projects, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which matches technologists and other innovators from the private sector with counterparts in the federal government for specific initiatives.