The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a once-in-a-generation challenge for the federal government and its 2 million employees, creating urgent new missions and fundamentally altering how government engages the public. This analysis sheds light on the key characteristics of our nation’s federal civilian workforce in this period, many of whom are on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus. What impact has this public health emergency had on the makeup of the federal workforce? How has the accompanying economic crisis affected government hiring and interest in federal jobs? The Partnership for Public Service analyzed federal workforce and hiring data to answer these and other questions.
Unless otherwise noted, all data in this analysis are for the full-time, nonseasonal, permanent, civilian workforce of the executive branch, and do not include employees of the legislative or judicial branches, the intelligence community, the U.S. Postal Service, foreign service officers or locally employed staff within the Department of State, or uniformed military personnel.
Percentages throughout may not appear to add up to 100 due to rounding.
History of the Federal Workforce
During the course of several decades, the federal workforce as a percentage of the total U.S. population has steadily decreased. In absolute terms, the federal workforce of today is slightly smaller than it was 50 years ago, even as the U.S. population has increased by nearly two-thirds.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, full-time and part-time federal employees made up 0.6% of the U.S. population. By the end of the year, as government scaled up its response to the pandemic, they made up 0.7%. But this modest growth in workforce per capita is still overshadowed by other historical ramp-ups in response to crises, such as the highs of the World War II era.
Workforce Trends During the Pandemic
In March of 2020, as the coronavirus was spreading across the country and the world, the full-time federal workforce stood at just over 1.9 million employees. By the end of the year, though Congress had appropriated roughly $2.5 trillion in supplemental funding for federal agencies, the workforce had expanded by just over 36,000 employees, averaging an increase of 0.6% per quarter and matching the level of growth over the same period in 2019. At least in the short-term, the pandemic does not appear to have significantly transformed the size or composition of the federal workforce.
Between March and December 2020, 15 Cabinet departments saw the average sizes of their workforces increase each quarter. The Department of Education’s workforce, which remained relatively stable over the same period in 2019, increased by 2.7% on average per quarter—the highest among the Cabinet. Conversely, the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses many of the agencies tasked with directly responding to the pandemic, saw its workforce retract by an average of 1.1% per quarter.
In March 2020, the top government employer was the Department of Veterans Affairs, which accounted for 19.4% of the full-time federal workforce. By December 2020, the VA’s share of the workforce increased to 19.5%. The departments of the Navy, Air Force, Treasury and Agriculture also saw their shares of the workforce marginally increase while the departments of the Army and Justice remained flat. The departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the headquarters component and agencies of the Department of Defense saw slight decreases.
Occupations in the Federal Workforce
The nature of work performed by federal employees has evolved over time, shifting from largely clerical to more highly skilled knowledge-based work in professional and administrative occupations. This trend continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
In March 2020, 67.2% of the full-time, nonseasonal permanent federal workforce served in professional and administrative occupations. By December, 67.6% of the workforce served in professional and administrative occupations. Over the same period, full-time blue collar occupations fell from 9.1% to 8.8% of the workforce.
Health-related employees such as nurses and medical officers made up 8.8% of the federal workforce in both March and December 2020. Over that same period of time, STEM employees, such as technologists, biologists and engineers, went from 16.6% to 16.8% of the workforce, largely driven by an increase in the number of information technology managers.
It is a common misconception that most federal employees work in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. In December 2020, just under 20% of the full-time workforce was located inside the D.C. area, while over 80% was located throughout the rest of the nation – a distribution that has remained consistent before and throughout the pandemic.
The federal workforce is older than the U.S. workforce at large. At the end of 2020, employees under 30 represented just under 7.0% of the full-time federal workforce while they constituted nearly 20% percent of the total employed U.S. labor force.
The Veterans Health Administration, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration all were critical to the government’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis.
Between March and December 2020, the full-time workforces across these six agencies grew by an average of 0.7% per quarter, just slightly outpacing the 0.6% in average growth seen government-wide over the same period. FEMA saw the largest expansion, averaging 1.3% per quarter, while the NIH workforce retracted by 2.7% on average.
According to the CDC, age is a key risk factor for severe illness from the coronavirus, with those 60 and over at highest risk. In December 2020, 14.4% of the full-time federal workforce fell into this age group. At the six front-line agencies included in this analysis, 17.0% of this collective workforce was 60 and over.
Political appointees are a critical component of the leadership team at many federal agencies. Particularly in a time of crisis, having a full team of political and career leadership enables agencies to make consequential decisions faster and effectively respond to challenges as they arise. Despite this, only two of the front-line agencies included in this analysis had every key Senate-confirmed position filled at the start of the pandemic in March or at the end of the year in December 2020.
Federal Hires and Departures
Between March and July 2020, the latest month of available data, the number of new full-time employees hired by the federal government outpaced those who separated from federal civil service by quitting, retiring or some other means. These numbers do not include part-time employees, temporary employees, or government contractors that may have been hired by agencies to assist in the response to the pandemic.
Surge Hiring Bright Spots During the COVID-19 Pandemic
When addressing a crisis that demands a surge in hiring, the standard federal hiring process—which can take an average of more than three months—is often insufficient. However, there are a number of options that enable agencies to quickly bring on large numbers of qualified staff while remaining committed to the civil service goal of cultivating an apolitical and professional workforce. Below are two examples of agencies that used surge hiring strategies to rapidly increase the size of their workforces and meet the monumental public health and economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Veterans Health Administration
To meet the overwhelming demand for care brought on by the pandemic, the VHA onboarded about 55,300 permanent and non-permanent new hires between March and October 2020, including more than 10,400 registered nurses and nurse practitioners.
The foundation of this hiring surge was the VHA’s national recruitment effort, which leveraged social media and other resources to attract candidates for the many types of positions it needed to fill, including nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, housekeepers and supply technicians. Applicants interested in temporary appointments were encouraged to apply directly through the VHA’s website.
And to allow new hires to being working quickly, the VHA reduced the credentialing process from 30 to three days, used data to resolve process inefficiencies, and staggered the onboarding process.
Small Business Administration
In late March 2020, Congress passed and the president signed the CARES Act, a $2.3 trillion economic stimulus package designed to mitigate the devastating impacts of COVID-19, tasking the Small Business Administration with managing its $350-billion Paycheck Protection Program.
To efficiently deliver this amount of financial support to small businesses and nonprofit organizations, the SBA launched a hiring surge.
By September, the agency had onboarded more than 6,000 new, mostly non-permanent, employees. One of the SBA’s approaches to quickly expanding its workforce was to strategically use multiple hiring authorities, including Military Spouse Noncompetitive Appointing Authority, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Noncompetitive Eligibility, and direct hire authorities.
See the Partnership’s Rapid Reinforcements report for more on these surge hiring case studies.
Interest in Federal Jobs
At the height of the pandemic-induced economic crisis in April 2020, when the unemployment rate stood at nearly 15% and the economy lost 20.5 million jobs, interest in federal positions, measured by average daily visits to USAJOBS.gov, was up by 2.8% compared to the same period in 2019.