The Federal Workforce and the Trump Administration
This analysis sheds light on our nation’s federal civilian workforce during the Trump administration. What changes occurred throughout the administration’s four years? Did past trends continue or change under President Donald Trump? The Partnership for Public Service analyzed federal workforce data to answer these and other questions.
Because of its sheer size, it is rare to see substantial shifts government-wide in the size of the workforce or its makeup in just a few years. The Trump administration was no exception. Despite a global pandemic and other disruptive forces, the career workforce remained stable and resilient. However, a few noteworthy changes among specific portions of the workforce emerged during Trump’s time in office–changes that may be of interest to the Biden administration as it seeks to support and strengthen the federal civil service.
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.
Government-wide Workforce Trends
Overall, the full-time, civilian workforce did not experience drastic shifts in size during the Trump administration. From just before the start of the administration in December 2016 to December 2020, the full-time workforce grew by an average of 0.9% per year.
By comparison, the workforce expanded by an average of 0.3% per year in the second term of the Obama administration. And while there was a retraction of 0.3% in the first year of Trump’s presidency, the workforce grew by nearly 2.0% in his final year in office.
Agency Workforce Trends
While the overall number of full-time, civilian employees government-wide did not change substantially under Trump, there were several notable shifts at the agency level. With an average annual decrease of 13.8%, the Office of Personnel Management—the agency charged with overseeing the federal civilian workforce—saw the largest workforce retraction of any executive branch agency. This was largely, but not exclusively, driven by the transfer of the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Department of Defense in April of 2019. Between December 2018 and 2019, OPM lost nearly 55% of its workforce.
There also were notable changes at the government’s labor relations institutions. The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees the relationship between the federal government and civil service employees, saw an average decrease of 5.1% annually. And at the agency responsible for enforcing the nation’s labor laws, the National Labor Relations Board, the workforce fell by an average of 4.7% each year. Similarly, the Department of Labor’s count of full-time employees decreased by an average of 3.1%.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, agencies key to Trump’s policy priorities had some of the largest workforce growth during his four years in office. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which was at the forefront of the administration’s international trade policy, experienced a 3.3% average increase in its workforce between 2017 and 2020. The Department of Veterans Affairs also expanded by an average of 3.1%. And at the Department of Homeland Security, where nearly every subcomponent grew under Trump, the overall workforce increased by an average of 1.7%, just above the government-wide average.
During the Trump administration, there were concerns that its posture towards federal employees and specific agency missions could spark a wave of departures across government, whether due to retirements or voluntary resignations. While the average number of retirements among full-time employees was just 0.7% higher under Trump compared to President Barack Obama’s second term, the average number of employees who quit was 14.1% higher. However, because resignations consistently account for less than half of all voluntary separations from federal civil service, this increase did not drastically shift the government-wide attrition rate.
In the second term of the Obama administration, the average voluntary attrition rate was 5.6% for full-time, civilian employees. Between 2017 and 2020, the rate peaked at 6.1% and averaged 5.8%.
While the overall separation trends may not have shifted significantly during the Trump administration, there were noteworthy movements across specific segments of the workforce that could create long-term challenges for government.
On average, the number of civil servants 65 and older who quit their jobs increased by 9.7% annually, the largest of any age group. And while they consistently made up less than 2.0% of those who resigned government-wide, the loss of these employees cost agencies in terms of experience and subject-matter expertise.
Across all levels within the civil service, the number of employees quitting their jobs increased consistently from 2017 to 2019. Resignations among entry-level (5.7%), mid-level (4.8%) and senior-level (4.5%) employees on the General Schedule and equivalent pay scales increased annually over the course of those three years.
However, between 2019 and the end of 2020, resignations decreased substantially at every level. Among entry-level employees, the largest block, the number of resignations decreased by nearly 16.0% between 2019 and 2020. Among mid-level and senior-level employees, those quitting fell by 19.0% and 30.0% respectively. While it is difficult to say specifically what was behind this shift, it was likely driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senior Executive Service is made up of some of the most experienced civil servants in the federal government. Career SES members often have decades of federal tenure and bring invaluable expertise to their work.
The size of the SES fluctuated throughout the Trump administration, continuing a pattern that was also seen during the second term of the Obama administration. After falling by 4.8% between December 2016 and 2019, the SES grew by 4.0% in 2020. In the end, the cadre of senior civil servants had 74 fewer members at the end of Trump’s tenure than it did at the start.
The full-time, civilian workforce became slightly younger and more diverse in terms of race and sex under the Trump administration, marking the continuation of established trends. As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government has room to improve in terms of demographic representation, particularly when compared to the broader U.S. labor force.
While the share of female employees grew between December 2016 and 2020, they remained underrepresented in the upper echelons of career leadership. Similarly, while people of color represented a larger share of the workforce by the end of the Trump administration, they remained underrepresented among senior-level positions.
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 Trump administration. In December 2016 just before Trump took office, employees in professional and administrative positions made up about 66.0% of the federal workforce. By December 2020, that number had risen to 68.0%. And while the size of this group of employees grew by an average of 1.4% annually during the Trump administration, all other occupational groups, including blue collar and clerical, shrank.
Within the professional workforce, the number of administrative and program specialists increased by an average of 1.5% annually during the Trump administration. The IT workforce, the second largest government-wide, increased by an average of 1.6%. Nurses, the third largest, increased by an average of 3.1%.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal scientific workforce was key to government’s ability to deliver on many of its critical missions. From chemists to biologists to pharmacologists, scientists were even more critical when the public health emergency began.
While there were fluctuations throughout the four years of the Trump administration, the scientific workforce increased government-wide by an average of 1.0% per year. In the first year of the administration, the scientific workforce retracted by just under 1.5%. In its last year amid some of the worst days of the pandemic, the scientific workforce grew by around 4.0%.
The scientific workforce increased at the Department of Veterans Affairs by an average of 5.7%, growth largely driven by a 13% spike during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Homeland Security’s scientific workforce grew by an average of 4.1% annually. At the other end of the range, the Environmental Protection Agency lost 0.8% of its scientific workforce on average per year. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants, lost 4.3% of its scientific employees on average per year, the highest percentage of any independent agency with a substantial scientific workforce.
As enablers of mission delivery for many federal agencies, the human resources and cybersecurity workforces are also critical to government’s success. Over the course of the administration, the HR and cybersecurity workforces government-wide increased by an average of 1.1% and 1.9% respectively. Their shares of the overall federal workforce also remained stable. Between December 2016 and 2020, HR employees consistently represented about 2.0% of the full-time workforce. Cyber employees made up about 5.0%.
One of the Trump administration’s stated priorities was to shift parts of the federal workforce outside of the Washington, D.C. area and closer to the populations they served. Government-wide, the share of employees outside of the D.C. region increased from 78.7% in December 2016 to 80.5% in December 2020. While this did not represent a significant change in the geographic distribution of the workforce, the changes had a significant impact on the agencies that were affected.
For example, the highly-publicized relocations of two Department of Agriculture subcomponents – the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture – led to an exodus of employees. Between December 2018 and 2019 alone, ERS lost roughly 45.0% of its workforce. NIFA lost nearly 60.0%. And while both agencies managed to expand their workforces during the following year, the moves cost both agencies in institutional knowledge and expertise that will take time to replace.
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