Centers of Excellence Can Support Federal Programs’ Mission and Enhance Engagement with Underserved Communities


Jun 24, 2024

A team of tech workers collaborates in front of a computer screen, photo by Anela Ramba/ Stock

Photo by Anela Ramba/ Stock

Staffing the federal technical workforce of tomorrow will require innovative policy. Centers of Excellence (COEs), academic consortia that engage in research to support federal agencies, can play a vital role in assisting with the identification and recruitment of talent necessary for federal programs to achieve their missions.

As early as 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified strategic human capital as a key government risk, with a skills gap arising from shortages in potential staff and in workforce competency. These goals are supported at the federal level by the Office of Personnel Management, which, in its quadrennial Federal Workforce Priorities Report, noted that federal agencies should prioritize recruitment, succession planning, and knowledge transfer and that they should leverage data as a strategic asset for decisionmaking.

According to the Department of Labor, the fastest employment growth in the federal workforce is among highly skilled workers such as statisticians, data scientists, and engineers. Universities and the faculty, staff, and students in COEs represent significant science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent pools—with many researchers having agency-specific knowledge and training. Yet, across agencies, approaches to facilitating a pipeline of talent from these COEs and those they train are notably underexploited.

COEs have the capability to play a role in developing the future federal workforce by being situated in or partnering with minority-serving institutions (MSIs) such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities. While federal programs often dedicate resources to these initiatives, very often these efforts are siloed away from the primary research functions of the COE. When internship, workforce development, or other training programs exist, they should be designed in such a way that there is a clear pathway for federal programs to identify and hold on to this talent. In this way, collaborative agreements with COEs could be explored as a pathway to building diverse STEM talent at the federal level.

While federal agencies are sometimes geographically concentrated, COEs are often dispersed around the country and have research partnerships with communities that are traditionally underserved in STEM. As a result, COEs can help federal programs expand their geographic reach and the demographic diversity of their workforce. They can also help federal programs connect across the economy. This is because COEs develop partnerships that extend beyond universities, engaging with industry, national laboratories, community colleges, and tribal and territorial homeland security agencies. These multi-stakeholder partnerships can provide a readily available platform to support federal programs in building and retaining a diverse federal workforce.

COEs help ensure that students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds have opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research and development in fields relevant to the mission space of federal programs.

Increasing the diversity of a technical workforce necessitates a concerted effort starting with the consideration of workforce development in the selection and evaluation of a COE. During the COE program solicitation and proposal evaluation stage, metrics capturing workforce development, as well as community outreach and engagement efforts, should be integral to proposal evaluation and clearly articulated in the proposal call and the review criteria.

The evaluation rubric should include concerted efforts to diversify across dimensions that are historically marginalized for institutions from rural areas, institutions classified as R2 research classification, and those designated as MSI, HSI, HBCUs, tribal colleges, etc. as well as community colleges and tradecraft institutions. Similar metrics that include and incentivize workforce development–related goals should be a critical component of yearly evaluations of the funded COEs. Sustained engagement with COEs will likely pave the way for more investment in underserved communities and institutions.

COE programs help to ensure that students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds have opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research and development in fields relevant to the mission space of federal programs. These partnerships not only provide direct educational and research opportunities, but also foster an environment where students from diverse backgrounds can contribute unique perspectives and innovative ideas. Many COE programs also focus on interdisciplinary training, offering workshops, internships, and fellowships that expose students to real-world applications and challenges in areas where such opportunities may otherwise be lacking, such as homeland security.

COEs are well poised as risk-takers in research and development for science and technology and do cutting-edge research and development in advancing science; frequently, these organizations do work which aligns with homeland security needs. COEs already have a specialized workforce uniquely suited to engage in emerging science and technology relevant to federal programs. Clearer pathways for engagement and recruitment into federal agencies may be symbiotic, serving as an incentive for students and staff to view COEs as a key component of their desired career path.

Ensuring an adequate supply of high skilled labor necessitates a multifaceted approach. Effective strategies include developing targeted outreach and education programs in STEM for underserved communities, providing scholarships and financial aid for underrepresented groups, and implementing inclusive recruitment practices to minimize bias. These efforts not only promote equity but also enhance innovation and creativity by incorporating a wide range of perspectives. COEs often develop multi-stakeholder partnerships, bringing together academia, industry, and nonprofit organizations. These partnerships leverage the research expertise and perspectives from different stakeholders for shared research and workforce development goals. Diverse partnerships tend to result in longer and more robust COEs, supporting engagement with the institutions that would be training the future workforce.

Implementing focused actions can significantly contribute to enhancing the supply of STEM workers and enriching diversity in the federal technical workforce. These efforts not only create opportunities for individuals from various backgrounds but also drive innovation and economic growth by bringing diverse perspectives into a key research space. Key training programs, primarily aimed at developing new technical capabilities within federal programs provide critical pathways for underrepresented groups into federal workforce roles. COEs can advance development of applied technology crucial for federal research programs while ensuring the workforce reflects the diversity of the communities they aim to serve.

Neeti Pokhriyal is an information scientist, Daniel Hicks is an applied economist, and Christy Foran is a senior physical scientist at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.