We the Partnership

How the federal workforce changed under the Trump administration

By Maddie Powder
December 16, 2021

The Trump administration came into office with the expressed intention of shrinking the size of the federal government and its workforce.

However, our latest analysis shows that the number of full-time, civilian federal employees increased throughout the former president’s term, and despite some exceptions, several trends in demographics, seniority, career focus, and agency size also held steady during this time.

Overall, the federal workforce increased by an average of 0.9% per year between December 2016, just before the start of the Trump administration, and December 2020, just before the president left office. This increase compares with a 0.3% average increase during the second term of the Obama administration.

While the total number of employees government-wide only rose slightly under President Trump, more notable shifts occurred at the agency level.

Several agencies that oversee and enforce national labor standards saw marked declines. For example, the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces labor laws concerning collective bargaining and unfair labor practices, saw its workforce decrease by an average of 4.7% during Trump’s term. In addition, the Department of Labor’s workforce decreased by an average of 3.1% and one of its subcomponents, the Woman’s Bureau, fell by an average of 9.4% during each year of the administration—the largest decrease of any subcomponent within the agency.

These workforce declines aligned with the Trump administration’s budgetary priorities, which consistently led to reduced funding for Labor.

For example, the administration’s first budget, issued in fiscal 2018, called for a 21% decrease in Department of Labor funding from the prior fiscal year. This trend continued until the end of the president’s term, with the fiscal 2021 budget reducing the agency’s funding by 10.5% compared with fiscal 2020.

On the other hand, agencies that managed and implemented the administration’s policy priorities saw increased funding over time.

For example, one of President Trump’s priorities was to secure the nation’s borders. In fact, in his first year in office, Trump signed four executive orders related to border security and immigration law enforcement.

Accordingly, the Department of Homeland Security’s workforce increased by an average of 1.7% per year from December 2016 to December 2020. Several DHS subcomponents drove this increase, including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Customs and Border Protection, which increased by an average of 5.2% and 2.0%, respectively.

Another administration priority was to decrease the trade deficit with China and renegotiate trade deals to better support America’s domestic producers. Workforce changes at the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative, which increased by an average of 3.3% per year, reflect those efforts.

Finally, the Department of Veterans Affairs saw its workforce increase by an average of 3.1% throughout the Trump presidency. This increase resulted largely from increased spending on veterans’ issues. The fiscal 2021 budget, for instance, included billions for the expansion of veterans’ health care programs, including suicide prevention initiatives and opioid prevention and treatment.

These trends make it clear that despite the federal workforce’s overall growth under the Trump administration, certain agencies experienced increases and decreases based on the president’s priorities.

See our full Fed Figures analysis for more on how the federal workforce changed under the Trump administration, including data on resignations and retirements, the race and ethnicity of federal employees, and scientific workforce trends.


Maddie Powder

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