Mission and practitioner support
The most powerful tools for retaining government AI talent are ensuring that AI work is closely tied to the agency mission and ensuring that AI talent has the technical and institutional support to work effectively as AI practitioners.
This combination forms the unique value proposition for an AI career that only federal agencies can provide, and is usually the reason AI practitioners chose government over industry and academia.
If AI practitioners discover that their work isn’t clearly contributing to the agency mission, they are unlikely to stay because they could do data science work outside for better money or causes they care about. If AI practitioners love the agency mission but are unable to function as AI practitioners, they are also unlikely to stay if the agency is unable to leverage their skill set. Both meaningful work and practitioner support are crucial for retaining AI talent
Retention incentives and skill development
One way to make the best use of these usually limited incentives is to ensure federal employees have full awareness and access to AI related training and skill development opportunities.
This will demonstrate that agencies are committed to the progression of employee skill and career development, and encourages AI talent to invest in their careers.
AI and data science are fields that often require a significant technical and academic background for success. However, it’s also important for people to be open-minded about who might have (most of) the relevant skills and capabilities.
They should not assume that only people with computer science or statistics education are going to be appropriate for AI-centric positions. A culture that prizes and generously supports learning not only ensures the continued effectiveness of the AI workforce, but also serves as a powerful recruitment and retention tool. Agencies should recruit AI talent at all career stages; bringing in early-career AI talent offers a special opportunity to create a cadre of AI practitioners with deep experience with the agency. But this opportunity requires investing in formal education for these early-career practitioners in order to realize their full potential.
Many agencies already have formal education programs; for these programs to be most effective for AI practitioners, they need to be more flexible than they are now. For example, full-time degree programs should be eligible for tuition reimbursement, not just part-time programs. Agencies can make up for the higher cost of full-time degree programs by extending service agreements accordingly. Agencies shouldn’t force their best AI talent to choose between continuing employment and attending the most competitive degree programs, which tend to require full-time attendance.
Training, conferences, and exchanges with industry and academia
In AI and data science, the state of the art advances by the month. AI practitioners must regularly attend industry and academic conferences to maintain their effectiveness.
AI practitioners who feel they may be falling behind in their field while working in government are more likely to leave to maintain their own competence as AI practitioners; agencies should actively prevent this situation to improve retention.
In general, interaction with industry and academia allow government AI practitioners to benefit from the vast scale of innovation happening outside the confines of government.
One of the deepest forms of government interaction with industry and academia are exchanges where government AI practitioners spend a limited time fully embedded in a partner organization. That language is now codified into law in the 2019-2020 National Defense Authorization Act. After completing these assignments, AI practitioners return to their agencies armed with the latest best practices and new ideas. From the other end, partner organizations can embed some of their employees in government agencies, bringing fresh perspective to the agency and offering access to a different pool of AI talent. Partner organizations benefit from these exchanges by promoting better government understanding of their industry or institution, while also developing contacts and relationships with government agencies relevant to their domains.