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June/July 2011



Diversity/Careers June/July 2011 Issue




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Diversity In Action

While minding vets' affairs, VA promotes its own D&I

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a plan focused on human-capital investment that includes a full-scale drive to promote diversity and inclusion in its own ranks


The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is building a strong track record in diversity and inclusion as well as veterans' employment. Georgia Coffey, deputy assistant for diversity and inclusion (D&I), notes that in addition to "a major, unprecedented financial investment in human capital development and veterans' employment, we have a strategic plan that's one of the first in the federal government exclusively focused on promoting D&I. We know that diversity and inclusion are essential strategies for a high-performing organization."

VA's plan is currently a model for other federal government agencies, Coffey reports proudly.

One of the department's key new programs is called "Advance." It emphasizes human-capital investment as a "driver of employee engagement and performance," Coffey explains. So far VA has brought the initiative to more than 200,000 employees, with online and face-to-face training, coaching and consultation. Topics include project management, writing skills, leadership development and much more.

"We think we're one of the first cabinet-level agencies to make this level of investment in our employees," Coffey says. "The program was implemented last summer and has been growing since then, with high participation rates." Diversity and inclusion principles are emphasized throughout. "That's been integral to its success," Coffey feels.

VA has lots of job categories for techies: systems engineers and architects, project managers, IT security specialists, application software developers, network specialists and managers, desktop support technicians and database admins. The organization is moving toward a paperless environment where its recordkeeping will be seamlessly integrated with the Department of Defense.

In FY 2011 VA expects to hire more than 700 new IT pros in addition to replacements for people who leave or retire. The agency is looking for knowledge and experience.

"Project Management Institute (PMI) certification carries a lot of weight in many of our areas and will definitely get attention," Coffey says. She adds that specialized experience and advanced education are always a plus, but advanced degrees are not generally required.

"We're always looking for recent grads as well as experienced pros who have been in the field; it just depends on the job." She notes that VA does outreach on Facebook and Twitter and "uses other social networking avenues to reach a broad, technologically savvy audience."

Most of VA's field organizations work directly with their local institutions for recruitment, as well as with national outreach networks.

Outreach efforts include longstanding partnerships with Hispanic-serving institutions, historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. "We also reach out to other diverse communities, including people with disabilities," Coffey adds.

Government-wide there's been a major loss of institutional knowledge through retirement and attrition, Coffey says. But VA now has a "robust" diversity outreach and leadership development program to compensate. "We want to ensure that our employees have the skill sets and competencies to be VA's future leaders. Our leadership development programs are designed to deliver meaningful learning experiences, mentoring, coaching and leadership assessment.

"The idea is to reach out to diverse, high-performing individuals who will succeed as VA's next cadre of transformational leadership," Coffey says. "Diversity in the broadest context is integral to this."

Coffey co-chairs the leadership development program, and has led the implementation of mandatory EEO, diversity and conflict management training for VA executives, managers and supervisors. "We want to ensure that our supervisors and leaders are equipped with the tools and resources they need to maintain a diverse and inclusive workforce. That's how we provide the best service to our veterans," Coffey says. "We started this new initiative last year and have now trained almost all our managers and supervisors," some 27,000 to date. Additional programs are in the works.

VA supports affinity groups that share best practices, including Blacks in Government, the Federal Asian Pacific American Council, Federally Employed Women and LGBT.

Under Coffey's leadership the VA office of diversity and inclusion has launched an agency-wide diversity council composed of senior executives plus, employee affinity group and union reps. At its quarterly meetings the members provide advice and recommendations for the VA secretary, develop strategies, and share ideas on workplace D&I with VA offices around the country. VA's administrations, the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration, have their own diversity council representatives.

In addition to training and development, there's a wellness initiative for the agency's 300,000 employees. "The idea is to push out information on work-life balance, health and fitness, telework and other strategies to help employees balance work demands and family life," says Coffey.

She notes that while federal health benefits are not yet available to domestic partners, VA strongly supports the extension of protections and benefits permissible under law to the LGBT community. These include bereavement and family care leave and, under a June 2010 ruling by the Obama administration, hospital visitation in VA hospitals. VA also includes sexual orientation as a "protected class" in its EEO and diversity policy.

Like its D&I program, VA's Veterans Employment Coordination Service serves as a model for the federal government, Coffey says. VA employment coordinators around the country focus on recruiting veterans and disabled veterans into the VA workforce. As a result of a recent executive order on veteran employment, other federal agencies will implement similar plans to bring vets into government service.

"In fact, our office has just revealed a new plan for the employment and retention of people with disabilities, both veteran and non-veteran populations. It's a comprehensive plan to recruit and retain people with disabilities," says Coffey. VA recently established a centralized fund for providing reasonable accommodations to its employees with disabilities.

"Altogether, these initiatives form a comprehensive and robust diversity and inclusion program that benefits all," Coffey declares.

D/C




U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
www.va.gov

Headquarters: Washington, DC
Employees: 300,000
Budget: Requested $132.2 billion for 2012
Business: Benefits and services for veterans

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