Booz Allen Hamilton feeds employees’ appetite for upskilling

Booz Allen Hamilton’s Emergent Certification Program pays big money for new skills — and employees can’t wait to take part.

When clients come to you for guidance on the most complicated technical challenges in the marketplace today, you had better be sure that your workforce has the knowledge and skills to meet their needs.

This is a challenge that Booz Allen Hamilton faces every day. The global consultancy helps Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and military organizations defend against cyber attacks, adopt analytics capabilities and navigate huge digital transformation efforts. To meet their needs, they need to constantly hire and train staff on some of the most complicated and hard-to-find skills in the marketplace. 

“Our staff has a huge appetite for upskilling,” says Jason Jury, cybersecurity learning & development manager for BAH, which has 29,000 employees spread across 80 offices. That appetite for learning, and constantly evolving expectations from clients, drives BAH to constantly reimagine how learning takes place in the organization. 

The latest iteration of their learning environment is the Emergent Certification Program, which takes learning incentives to a whole new level. “Our goal is to motivate and reward employees to build highly mobile skills sets in critical areas,” says Jim Hemgen, director and executive lead.

The program targets high-demand skills where BAH needs to build technical capacity, offering $5,000 cash and $10,000 in unrestricted stock options to qualified employees who complete the training. It may sound like a generous incentive, but senior leadership fully supports the idea, says Hemgen. “It’s a lot cheaper than finding these skills in the marketplace,” he says. 

Four must-have skills

For the first iteration of the program, which launched in late 2021, BAH analyzed job openings across the company and interviewed business unit leaders about the skills that are hardest to find in the talent market. Through that analysis, they identified four certification topics:  

  • AWS and Microsoft Azure certifications.
  • DevSecOps certification.
  • Databricks data science certification.
  • Cyber threat hunter certifications.

The company then analyzed the skills and experiences of employees across the company to identify those with adjacent skills to these certification areas — for example, a software engineer who could become a DevSecOps expert. To ensure diversity, the analysis process was fully anonymized, with all names removed. “We only wanted to focus on skills and qualifications,” Hemgen says.

They also partnered with HackerRank and internal SMEs to develop a series of assessment questions to test those employees’ core skills as a way to identify the most promising candidates for the program.

Through that analysis, the company identified 605 employees with the skills to participate. The L&D department sent them emails explaining the program and what was required, and inviting them to complete the assessment. If they passed — and their career managers approved their participation — they could sign up for one of the training programs. 

Hemgen admits he was a little concerned there would be push-back from some of their career managers. The training would require participants to take time away from their billable projects, and it could potentially put them on a path to another position on a different team. But his fears didn’t pan out. “Every manager said yes, across the board,” he says.

Of the 605 employees contacted, 449 completed the assessment, and 400 participated in the training, which occurred from January through March 2022.

Each of the four training tracks includes a series of cohort-based live instructor-led learning sessions. “It’s very effective when employees can share the learning experience with their colleagues,” Hemgen says. “We find many tangible benefits in making those connections.” 

Participants also had access to online courses and practice labs via Udemy, the company’s learning platform. Much of that training occurred during non-work hours. Participants were expected to spend 40-100 hours in live and self-paced training before sitting for the exam.

Focused on the future

One of the participants was Kevin Meeks, a senior full-stack developer who was intrigued when he received the email inviting him to apply. 

“I’ve always been the type of person who likes to learn,” Meeks says, noting that it was one of the reasons he joined BAH in 2019. “They always encourage us to take training, but this program was different. They weren’t just encouraging it, they were making it a priority.” 

His manager agreed that the training would help Meeks excel in current and future roles. He passed the assessment and began training. 

Over the next several months, Meeks spent three eight-hours days in instructor-led training, and another 40-60 hours working on his own to prepare for the AWS Solutions Architect certification. He passed the exam, and the bonus showed up in his next payroll check. 

Meeks was happy about the money, but he’s even more excited about the doors the new certification is opening. While in training he was able to take on more complex tasks on his current project, which made him more valuable to his team and helped him hone his new skills. After passing the exam, he was promoted to a lead associate role and is preparing to transition to a new project where he will have a more senior position. 

“The training helped me get placed on this project, and it will look good in my next review,” Meeks says.

Linking training to career mobility is one of the key components of the program’s success. “We want to nurture mobility in the organization because it helps with retention and enables the company to keep meeting the needs of clients,” Hemgen says. “It affects a lot of business outcomes.” 

Taisha Ferguson had a similarly successful experience. She started at BAH in 2021 as a data engineer, and when she received the invitation, she knew immediately that she wanted to pursue the Azure Data Scientist certification. 

“It was an easy choice to make,” she says. 

Finding the time to complete the off-hours training wasn’t easy, but she got a lot of support from her team and managers. Being able to apply what she was learning under the guidance of teammates gave her a chance to practice her new skills. Her career manager also helped her find resources and use cases to enhance her studies.

She passed her exam and was quickly hired onto a project as an advanced data scientist. “There aren’t a lot of people with Azure machine learning experience out there, and it’s an in-demand skill,” Ferguson says. “If I’m good at it, the opportunities will be endless.”

An abundance of experts

Along with Meeks and Ferguson, 326 other participants finished the training and passed their exams. “Our pass rate has been amazing,” Jury says. “These certifications are very challenging.” 

They include the 12-hour DevSecOps exam, which 19 trainees passed. 

“We now have more DevSecOps certified employees than any other company,” Jury says. “That’s a huge win.”

The L&D department is now working with BAH business units to measure the impact of the training on client engagement and revenue generated. Early data suggests the training led to increased margins because emergent roles have higher hourly rates, increased employee engagement measured by the annual employee survey, and anticipated improvements in retention when compared with industry benchmarks. 

“We started this with the end in mind, and now we are seeing results,” Hemgen says.

They are now planning the next phase of the Emergent Certification Program, including which topics to cover and what employees to target. Many of the original trainees hope to participate again. 

“It’s exciting to see the buzz about this program,” Hemgen adds. “It’s gaining a lot of traction.”

As a consulting firm, BAH has to do whatever it can to ensure their people have leading-edge skills to support client needs. But this approach to training can work for any organization that is struggling to find talent. 

“In most cases, it is less expensive to build versus buy new skills,” Jury says. “But to do that you have to invest in employees who have an appetite for upskilling and show them the value of investing their time.”

This article was originally published by Chief Learning Officer, Talent Management’s sister publication.