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Meet the “Difference-Makers”: My Talk with the VA About Boot Camp Talent and Our Inaugural Virtual Career Connections Fair

Written by Jennifer K. Henry on May 21, 2021

Related content: Strategic Partnerships, Outcomes

L-R: Khristine Tibayan, Chris Mooty, Debbie Baerga

Last month, 2U hosted our inaugural virtual Career Connections fair, giving hundreds of students and graduates from 2U-powered boot camps the exclusive opportunity to connect face-to-face online with dozens of recruiters and representatives from some of today’s leading tech employers. Using table-to-table networking and small group interactions to help maximize the quality and flow of conversations, the participation of our industry partners brought tons of energy, excitement, and information to the event.

Two industry partner professionals offering students valuable insight and advice at the event were Chris Mooty and Khristine Tibayan, both program analysts and talent acquisition consultants for the Office of Information & Technology (OIT) at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Soon after the fair, I spoke with Chris, Khristine, and their talent acquisition colleague Debbie Baerga to get their thoughts on the Career Connections experience and working with 2U. Through our strategic partnership, we love helping the VA source top talent for its various open tech positions—and helping boot camp students gain a competitive edge in the job market.

As May is Military Appreciation Month, it’s also the perfect time to shine a spotlight on the VA and applaud their support of all the women and men who’ve served in the armed forces. My grandfather and uncle are both veterans, and there are multiple veterans as well as active-duty military in my husband’s family, so it was a real honor and joy to connect with this team at the VA.

Here are a few highlights from our enlightening conversation:

I think we've reached more people in a virtual environment than we would have in a physical one. It has helped us streamline our efforts to align higher levels of value.
— Chris Mooty, Talent Acquisition Consultant, Office of Information & Technology, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

JH (THAT’S ME): What were your takeaways from our first Career Connections fair?

CHRIS MOOTY (CM): “I thought it was a pretty phenomenal platform. It felt like I was there. The fast-paced nature and deep information-sharing created an intimate way for us to disseminate agency awareness, education about the federal government’s USAJOBS website, and employment opportunities with the OIT. I think the platform helps students absorb things a lot easier and take all these resources in and amplify their toolbox to align with their goals in pursuit of a position. A lot of students seemed to be blown away by getting so much content and information from us. They were locked in the whole time. It enhanced the experience and enabled better questions and answers. I think we've reached more people in a virtual environment than we would have in a physical one. It has helped us streamline our efforts to align higher levels of value.”

KHRISTINE TIBAYAN (KT): “So many students came dressed to impress. They had their resumes and questions ready. They came prepared, and first impressions mean a lot. One individual was in a career transition—she’s a pharmacist but said her career wasn’t what she thought it was going to be. So she took a coding boot camp and now she loves what she's doing. She told me the fair was eye-opening for her and that she learned a lot about the VA and hiring eligibility. There are a few common misunderstandings about how to obtain federal employment—it’s your eligibility first, followed by your qualifications—so building that foundational knowledge was definitely important for students to understand.”

DEBBIE BAERGA (DB): “For USAJOBS, creating your account and searching for a job is not specific to the VA; it’s for the entire federal government. So I think what Chris and Khristine were able to offer students was extremely valuable. I’m very proud of the work they both do. In the VA, we want to provide as much awareness, education, and training as possible—and not necessarily just to bring people on board. No one wants a script, and this is an opportunity for us to just be ourselves and share those intimate stories and our personal experiences. Students can use all this learning in other environments and with other agencies, too. That’s a win-win.”

In the VA, we want to provide as much awareness, education, and training as possible…. This is an opportunity for us to just be ourselves and share those intimate stories and our personal experiences.
— Debbie Baerga, Talent Acquisition Consultant, Office of Information & Technology, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

JH: What are some of the VA’s greatest tech needs and hiring objectives for this year and beyond? And how do you see 2U helping you achieve those goals?

DB: “The OIT is currently recruiting for a variety of positions across information technology specialist parentheticals such as customer support, systems administration, operating systems, information security, policy and planning, and systems analysis. Hiring in these occupational series addresses the skill requirements to satisfy the agency’s mission. All IT positions for OIT are considered mission critical. Therefore, students who have graduated from 2U-powered boot camps, who qualify and apply, can help fill vacancies within OIT utilizing approved VA hiring paths such as Recent Graduates, Veterans, and Individuals with Disabilities.”

CM: “The benefit to the VA and 2U’s collaboration efforts is the opportunity to align students who possess the eligibility and the qualifications required to secure federal positions within the agency. The training webinars we offer students—including “How to Navigate through USAJOBS”—also provide candidates with information that can assist them in understanding how to qualify and apply for any open position across all federal agencies.”

JH: There’s a lot of talk in tech hiring about hard skills (e.g., JavaScript, Python) versus soft skills (e.g., collaboration, leadership ability). How might you see students from 2U-powered boot camps differing from other candidates in their manifestation of these skill sets?

KT: “Students from 2U-powered boot camps differ from other candidates in the fact that 2U’s learning design is focused on its three-pronged Learning Experience Framework: Feel, Think, and Do. By being mindful of the needs and expectations of students at varying levels of personal and professional experience, 2U is developing a higher level of quality candidates who possess a tempered balance of hard and soft skills. Candidates from 2U are also learner-centered, which gives them the competitive advantage of being receptive to a growth mindset, feedback, and collaboration—all characteristics that build character and well-roundedness.”

By being mindful of the needs and expectations of students at varying levels of personal and professional experience, 2U is developing a higher level of quality candidates who possess a tempered balance of hard and soft skills.
— Khristine Tibayan, Talent Acquisition Consultant, Office of Information & Technology, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

JH: What are some of the “hottest” tech jobs the VA is hiring for these days, and what do you think will be some of the hottest jobs at the agency in the future?

CM: “OIT is hiring all tech jobs, but IT cyber and information security are usually the hardest to fill. And as many of us are aware, all federal agencies, private industry, non-profits, etc. are competing for the same talent. To identify the hottest VA tech jobs in the future, certain factors such as retirement-eligible, transfers, technological advancements/trends, and availability of resources help determine that need. Another factor is recognizing whether the demand for tech talent remains the same throughout all of these organizations.”

JH: What advice would you give to boot camp students who are interested in working at the VA or, even more broadly, the federal government?

KT: “While students are applying and then waiting to hear about these federal opportunities, they should take advantage of contracting opportunities with the VA, if possible. That’s one way they can gain experience and let people know they’re already with the agency, but just on contract. In fact, that’s what I personally did until I found my opportunity here, and it’s something I shared with students during the fair. Don't just keep waiting for that golden goose. Be open to starting at a lower grade to get your foot in the door, because there are what we call ‘detail’ opportunities. Leadership provides these opportunities to help employees continue to build themselves professionally. They’re frequently advertised across agencies and they let people go work for another department or support another agency for a set period—and sometimes a detail can lead to a permanent situation. This is just one example of how the VA really does a great job in supporting its employees in growing their careers.”

DB: “I recommend boot camp students actively continue their search and take advantage of any opportunity they have to join an event like Career Connections. I say this especially if any students are current or former military themselves, because a lot of people on this call today are veterans—and you’ll find veteran connections wherever you go. It’s very personal to us, because we want to help them and pay back the sacrifices they’ve made.”

CM: “The amount of experience that students can tap into by connecting with people like myself and Khristine at the VA is tremendous. We have an amplified amount of information and years of experience here, plus we’re all difference-makers. It’s just how the VA is wired.”

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