The federal government is struggling to recruit, hire and retain diverse talent with the skills needed to meet the complex challenges facing our nation today and in the future. The hiring process is long and complicated, the current workforce is aging and the competition for top talent is fierce. Federal employee engagement lags that of the private sector, agencies do not maximize use of existing hiring authorities and the federal compensation system is not aligned to the broader labor market. Yet as the COVID-19 pandemic placed high demands on the federal workforce, many agencies across government capitalized on a time of national urgency to rethink how they recruit, hire and manage their people. We need that same commitment to talent modernization across government.
It takes government an average of 98 days to bring new talent on board—more than double the time in the private sector.
As of March 2021, 6.8% of full-time federal employees are under 30. Roughly one-third of employees onboard at the beginning of fiscal 2019 will be eligible to retire by the end of fiscal 2023.
The 2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® employee engagement score was 69.0 out of 100, lagging behind the private sector by more than 8 points.
About 83% major federal departments and agencies struggle with staffing shortages and 63% report gaps in the knowledge and skills of their employees, according to a 2018 OPM report.
According to the Survey on the Future of Government Service, just 32% of respondents say their agency has a strategic recruitment plan that’s aligned to its workforce needs.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONGRESS
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The government’s 1949 pay and classification system was designed for clerical workers, not today’s highly professional, specialized civil service. To meet today’s hiring and retention needs, Congress should create a modern, occupation-based, market-sensitive pay system. While the government, in most cases, will not be able to match private sector salaries, it will be better positioned to fill critical skill gaps—in cyber and STEM positions, for example—under a system that allows agencies more flexibility in setting pay.
The talent is out there, and government’s mission remains more compelling than ever, but agencies are losing out on bringing in a new, diverse and qualified generation into public service because the federal hiring system isn’t nimble enough to compete with the private sector.
Talent exchanges can strengthen agency workforces, support mission-critical work and lead to better collaboration among agencies and with the private sector. More could be done to remove barriers to their effectiveness – for example, Congress could amend the Intergovernmental Personnel Act to allow for-profit entities to participate in IPA-enabled talent exchanges involving select agencies and mission-critical occupations on a permanent or pilot basis.
Congressional oversight will foster accountability, transparency and knowledge-sharing with the goal of improving diversity, equity and inclusion across government. Taking steps to ensure workforce diversity by focusing on the recruiting, hiring, career mobility, training and development of groups with less-than-expected participation rates in federal occupations will also help government better serve people with a wide variety of needs and backgrounds.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION
Through strategic priorities, like those typically outlined in the President’s Management Agenda, the administration can seize the opportunity to introduce workforce reforms, match or exceed employee engagement in the private sector, and establish government as an employer of choice in the post-pandemic era that offers best-in-class flexibilities.
Government will never attract top talent and meet its workforce needs if it doesn’t simplify the federal hiring process, employ private sector best practices and make a concerted appeal to bring young people into government.
A commitment to improving workforce diversity, equity and inclusion must be in the DNA of every department and agency in the federal government. This goal will be more attainable if agencies share information about best practices, challenges and strategies.
Our current federal personnel system is geared to the model of the lifetime federal employee, and while some federal employees do stay on the job for a career, the government should have flexibility to bring in talented individuals who are willing to serve for shorter durations. This is especially important since younger workers increasingly want more mobility in their careers.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FEDERAL AGENCIES
Agencies need well-trained and well-resourced HR offices, aided by effective technologies and processes, to effectively recruit, develop and retain talent. Chief human capital officers should have a voice in strategic and budget decisions so that workforce needs and capabilities are considered. But hiring shouldn’t be left to HR alone. Involving subject matter experts in the resume review and candidate assessment processes will lead to a more targeted list of qualified candidates for positions.
The government has a retention problem. Of the full-time employees under 30 who voluntarily quit federal service in 2019, more than 73% did so with less than two years of tenure. It’s not enough to improve hiring processes without also focusing on retaining employees. Agencies should have clear performance metrics related to employee development and do more to capture data on why people leave government so that steps can be taken to address retention issues.
Data shows that people of color and women are well-represented in entry-level federal positions across government, but many lack a career path beyond the GS-13 level, which is designated as the first mid-career grade. Agencies can improve diversity among mid- and senior-level federal employees by being more intentional in developing career paths and providing growth opportunities for those who seek them, particularly when individuals come from groups that are underrepresented in government’s leadership ranks.