Human resource executives expressed doubt Wednesday about attracting and retaining top talent needed to drive innovation, particularly in the current economic climate.

“We are in competition for high demand talent,” said Anne Manganaro, Director of the Office of Strategic Human Capital for the National Reconnaissance Office. “With cuts to the military and potential reductions in DoD on the civilian side, it will be even more difficult. When it comes to a pipeline of technical talent, we’re in a national crisis. It’s effecting out ability to grow. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Manganaro was one of several panelists at Wednesday’s Human Capital Management Forum at the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington, Va. who discussed strategies for workforce transition, talent management and employee engagement. Several referenced the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings released by the Partnership for Public Service.

When it comes to a pipeline of technical talent, we’re in a national crisis. It’s effecting out ability to grow. That’s what keeps me up at night.” – Anne Manganaro

Jodi Simco, principal at the Hay Group, a PPS sponsor, was among several panelists who cited leadership as key to crucial building blocks for success and efficiency despite budget cuts.

Athough processes and systems can be in place to drive innovation it really starts with leadership. Innovation leaders are able to build networks of stakeholders to help get things done. They build teams that encourage and reward people for coming up with new things and ideas rather than punishing them for doing that.”

“You can develop leaders to be more innovative,” she added. “It takes time and effort. The agencies that are going to succeed in innovation … are going to select these types of leaders…and manage performance around that.”

At the same time, panelists also said they’re seeing the talent pool running dry. Robert Buggs, Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Education, said it’s his chief worry among many.

“I’m concerned about the economic climate in terms of attracting and keeping talent,” he said. “Attracting is more of a concern.”

However, the agency has made strides in talent management and performance, Buggs said, noting incremental improvement in the Best Places to Work rankings released Wednesday.

“We didn’t see the drop we thought as a result of freezing pay and bonus limits,” he added. “It’s something to build on. We’re doing something right and we need to continue down that road.”

Manganaro said she’s focused on collaboration with parent organizations that feed her unique talent pool, comprised of tech personnel from agencies such as the CIA, Air Force and Navy who design, build and operate space satellites.

For now, her strategy for attracting and retaining talent is providing attractive career development for the workers who typically stay with NRO two to 10 or more years.

Military tours might last longer, Manganaro said, “but we don’t own them. Developing that workforce is a unique challenge for us.

“Development opportunities must be as competitive as a possibility to become employer of choice,” she said. “We need brilliant tech experts. It’s a dim proposition. We have a national crisis in terms of education needed for matching the skills needed. We want to give these acquisition professionals that special sauce they need to be successful. … And there’s a high demand for space systems professionals.”