Why Can’t the Government Hire Young People?

Last week I wrote about the rapid decline in the number of Federal employees under age 30. The number of under-30 employees dropped from 233,759 to 176,533. The drop has been attributed to aging, a massive wave of resignations among younger employees, and hiring issues. OPM’s Fedscope database shows that, although resignations are up a bit (about 2,000 a year), the biggest problem is hiring.

One of the most successful hiring programs for recent college graduates was the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP). It was a critical source for DHS and Customs and Border Protection when they needed to ramp up the number of Border Patrol Agents. CBP hired thousands of new Border Patrol Agents, including a high percentage of Veterans. While FCIP was a successful program from the hiring perspective, it had many critics, including most unions and the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). MSPB ruled that FCIP violated Veteran Preference rights because it lacked adequate “public notice” to allow Veterans to apply for jobs filled via FCIP.

OPM replaced the FCIP with the Pathways programs. Pathways includes an internship program for current students, a program for hiring recent (within 2 years) graduates, and the Presidential Management Fellows Program. The Partnership for Public Service reports that Chief Human Capital Officers have expressed dissatisfaction with Pathways. FCIP used an Excepted Service appointing authority called Schedule B. The Pathways recent graduate program uses Schedule D. I decided to take a look at hiring for permanent positions using Excepted Service Schedules B and D to see how Pathways is doing relative to the FCIP. Fedscope does not provide a breakdown of specific Schedule B appointment types, but the majority of them traditionally were for FCIP.

What I found was not encouraging. The FCIP was terminated in February 2011. Hiring of under-30 applicants dropped by 58% between 2010 and 2011. When Pathways was introduced in 2012, total hiring continued to drop. We cannot show direct causation between problems with Pathways and decreased hiring, but the curve definitely moved in the wrong direction in 2011 and fell off a cliff in succeeding years. Last year the government hired less than one tenth the number of employees it hired in these programs just five years ago.

Federal Schedule B & D Hires 2009 - Q1 2014

The drop in under-30 hiring presents many long-term problems for the government. If it is not corrected, it will send the message that the Federal government is not a welcoming environment for young people, create a “missing generation” in the work force, and exacerbate inter-generational issues. It may also reduce opportunities for 18 – 24 year old Veterans, who have an unemployment rate over 20%.  None of those are good outcomes.

The government cannot return to FCIP because of its legal deficiencies, and it cannot rely on Pathways as it is now being implemented. OPM and the CHCO Council should commission an independent review of this issue by a third party (such as the National Academy of Public Administration) to identify the causes of the lack of hiring under-30 applicants and to recommend public policy changes that can ensure the government meets its intake needs in a way that does not  disadvantage young people and create other long-term issues.

 

 

What Happened to All of the Young Federal Employees?

In 2009 there were 233,759 Federal employees under age 30 – now there are 176,533. In 2009 there were 224,775 employees age 60 and over. Now there are more than 268,000 and the number is growing. What happened? Why is the workforce getting older? Should we even care? After all, older employees are often more experienced, more stable in their careers, and likely to continue to working for a number of years.

The problem the government is facing is that the number of younger employees is a good indicator of the talent the government will have available for critical mid-career jobs in the next 15 – 20 years. The lack of 30 and under talent means we will be facing significant shortfalls as current mid-career and older employees retire. We have seen this problem before. During the Clinton administration, employees in human resources, procurement and other “control” jobs were significantly downsized. Every Chief Human Capital Officer and Chief Procurement Officer I have talked with says they are still paying the price for those cuts. When GS-14 and GS-15 jobs are advertised, the number of high quality candidates is often inadequate. These are jobs where we used to see large numbers of excellent applications. Now a handful of good candidates is considered to be a good result.

The current workforce demographics are shifting rapidly. When we look at Federal employment by age group, we see the number of under-30 employees is dropping precipitously (from 11.4% of the workforce to 8.5%) and the number of 60+ employees is growing (from 11.0% to 13%). The rapid shift of the workforce profile is significant and a bit shocking. While some of the change can obviously be attributed to employees aging out of the 29 and under and 30 – 59 categories, that doesn’t explain everything. Why are things changing so quickly? Are younger employees leaving faster than older ones? Is the government hiring fewer young employees?

Fed Employment trend - Agencies by age group

Turnover is Not the Problem

Some of these questions are easy to answer. Publicly available data show the number of people leaving government and the numbers who are hired. What we see is interesting – the raw number of young people leaving peaked in FY 2010 at 69,656, and dropped to only 46,319 in FY 2013. The number of mid-career (age 30 – 59) employees and the number of older employees leaving have increased. A higher turnover rate among younger employees is to be expected. Early in a career, more employees change jobs than they do later in their careers. In almost every occupation and in most employers, turnover is highest in the first two years of employment. The number of permanent employees under 30 who are quitting is up by about 2000 per year, but that is a small fraction of the drop in employment in that age group. What these numbers tell me is that we do not have the extreme problems with retention of younger workers that some argue we have. Quit rates are up, but overall losses of under-30 employees are down, not up.

Federal Departures from Civil Service by Broad Age Groups

Hiring is the Problem

Where we do see a clear problem is in hiring younger workers. Overall hiring is down across the board, but hires of young people have dropped far more than those of mid-career and older workers. The number of new hires under age 30 has dropped by 54.8% since FY 2009, while mid-career hiring has dropped 37.2% and age 60+ hiring has dropped 24.4%. It is clear that what is driving the number of younger employees down is not turnover – it is hiring. The intake of younger employees has dropped so much that, even though younger employees are actually quitting less than they did 5 years ago, the new hires are not keeping up.

Fed New Hires by Age Group 2009 Q1 2014

What is causing the hiring of young people to dry up? Three reasons stand out:

  • First is younger applicants’ lack of interest in Federal careers. In recent years we have seen pay freezes, a partial government shutdown and almost non-stop Fed-bashing by the press and members of Congress. Someone just starting a career is far less likely to choose an employer where they have difficulty getting pay raises, are vilified by the press and senior government officials, and run the risk of having their income cut off suddenly because of political fights in Congress.
  • Second is agencies hiring filling fewer entry level jobs because of budget cuts. An agency that can fill only a small percentage of its vacancies may elect to fill them with more experienced new employees who can be productive immediately. Until budgets stabilize, this problem is likely to persist.
  • Third is the lack of effective programs for hiring recent graduates. Two of the hiring programs that target such applicants are the Pathways and Presidential Management Fellows programs. A recent report by Jason Miller of Federal News Radio said neither program is meeting agency needs today. The Partnership for Public Service 2014 Chief Human Capital Officers survey showed agencies are not satisfied with the Pathways program and 47% are not using it in a meaningful way. Some argue the program’s public notice requirement are too onerous, while others say agencies simply have not adjusted to the program since it was deployed in 2012. Whatever the reason, there does not appear to be a clear “Pathway” to Federal service for recent graduates. That says nothing about the continuing challenges applicants of all ages face in navigating the overly complex and slow Federal hiring process.

The shift of the Federal workforce to one that is much older is likely to reignite talk of a pending retirement wave. Although previous predictions of retirement doom proved to be unfounded, they were based upon projections of a workforce that had hiring and turnover numbers closer to historical norms. This rapid demographic shift is unlike what we have seen in the past and it is safe to say no one knows when current employees will retire. Societal trends are moving in the direction of longer careers, both for lifestyle and economic reasons. That may mean the workforce will continue to increasingly be populated with older workers. If that continues, we are likely to see a retirement bubble at some point in the future. If the government develops a reputation as a workplace that is not hospitable to recruiting younger applicants, we will likely see the trend accelerating for a few years until something is done to proactively deal with it. Until that happens, we should expect to see these trends continue.

Federal agencies will face a number of challenges as the workforce profile becomes more titled toward older workers. In my next post I am going to address the consequences of these demographic shifts and what I believe the government must do to adapt.

 

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You’re Fired! and Other Federal Management Fantasies

The recent news about the Department of Veterans Affairs has generated a lot of talk about performance – lack of it, failure to deal with problems, rating inflation, and so on. During a June 20th hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA revealed that none of its Senior Executives had gotten a rating below fully successful in the past 4 years. While that may seem shocking, the VA is not that out of the ordinary. Sub-par ratings for SES members are not common and firing them is even less common. Firing anyone in a management job is rare. There are a lot of reasons for that, including a selection process that weeds out unqualified applicants long before they could be selected and a lack of will to deal with problem employees.

The raw numbers of removals for employees below the SES level are higher, but overall there are not large numbers of supervisors and managers who get less than fully successful ratings.

The overall number of permanent Federal employees who have been fired in recent years is not large. A recent article in Federal Times cited numbers of 11,564 in FY 2009, 11,733 in FY 2010, 10,373 in FY 2011, 9,980 in FY 2012 and 9,513 in FY 2013. That ranges from a high of 0.57% of Federal employees fired in 2009 to a low of 0.46% in FY 2013. Those numbers may actually be a bit higher than true number of people fired for poor performance or misconduct, because they include people who were terminated because their appointments expired and for other reasons.

The Federal Times article points out the higher numbers of people fired from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA is exempt from most Federal employment laws as a result of authority it has in Section 111(d) of the aviation and Transportation Security Act) and the higher numbers of people at lower grades (particularly GS-5) who are fired. The high number of GS-5s is not surprising. More people enter Federal service at the GS-5 level than any other grade and, as new employees, they are much more likely to be let go. GS-5s also represent the largest number of resignations of any grade.

Federal Employee Terminations and Removals FY2009 – FY 2013

The raw number of SES terminations and removals is very low:

Senior Executive Service Removals and Terminations FY 2009 – FY 2013

Federal Times noted that lower graded employees are fired at a much higher rate than higher grades. What is not often mentioned is that SES members are fired at the same or higher rate than GS-14s and GS-15s. In fact, the FY 2012 SES firing rate was almost twice that of GS-15s and one-third more than the rate of GS-14s. In 2012, 7 of 7,815 SES (.09%) were fired for performance or misconduct, while 28 of 59,216 GS-15s (.05%) and 86 of 119,507 GS-14s (.07%) were fired.

Firing rates for higher grades are most likely lower because those employees have been screened repeatedly as they have moved up through the grades. Another factor may be the familiarity that more senior people have with one another. Firing anyone is hard, but it is easier to fire someone you don’t know as well. Firing the people you work most closely with every day is much harder.

All these numbers about firing lead to the question – why aren’t more people being fired if we want to make government better? A June 24 Government Executive article on a a House/Senate conference committee was headlined “VA Conferees Agree on One Thing: Fire More Bureaucrats.” Wouldn’t it be better if we give managers the ability to fire people much more easily so they can clear out the deadwood? Wouldn’t that lead to a general housecleaning that would make government far more effective? Shouldn’t government fire people at a rate similar to the private sector?

In a word, no.

The simple idea that it should be easier to fire people sounds good in theory. If we let good managers make good management decisions about letting poor performers go they will get rid of the poor performers. Like many simple ideas, that one is too simple. The real world is a bit more complex. Here are just a few of those complexities:

  • The simple view assumes managers will manage. This post started with the story about every SES member in the Department of Veterans Affairs getting a fully satisfactory or better rating. The numbers are not a lot better in other agencies. Most managers who talk about how hard it is to fire people have never tried to fire anyone. Keep in mind that MSPB’s 2005 report, The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity, MSPB reports that 1.6% of competitive service employees are removed from their jobs during their probationary period. Those are employees who can be fired easily and have little avenue of appeal. Firing them doesn’t require a lot of documentation or time. Firing probationary employees is as simple as it gets, yet only 1.6% of them are fired every year. Why should we believe a quick and easy process for firing everyone else would have different results?
  • The simple view assumes Federal employees who cannot perform are the reason for many of government’s problems. In that scenario, there are tens or hundreds of thousands of employees who contribute nothing and wiping out large numbers of them will make government better. That view doesn’t assign the blame for government’s biggest problems to the people and cultures that are actually responsible for them. Federal employees do not cause duplication of services across agencies. They don’t cause money to be appropriated for wasteful projects. They do not cause most of the problems of the federal government. For the most part, the ability of anyone other than the most senior employees to dramatically change anything is next to non-existent. By shifting the focus to them, we lose focus on the bigger systemic problems our government faces and guarantee we will never deal with the underlying causes. Are there poor performers in government? Yes. Is the number massive? No. Will rolling a few heads distract attention from the bigger problems? Absolutely.
  • The simple view also assumes those managers who do have the backbone to deal with poor performers will deal only with poor performers and not the people they do not like for personal or political reasons. The federal civil service was designed to protect government workers and the American people from a government spoils system and the toxic results it produced in the past. The great champion of the civil service, President Theodore Roosevelt, said “The spoils-monger and spoils-seeker invariably breed the bribe-taker and bribes-giver, the embezzler of public funds and the corrupter of voters.” President Roosevelt was right. “Reforms” that would lead us back to a spoils system would do far more damage to the interests of the American people than any harm that can be done by a ten or twenty or thirty thousand people who do not perform.
  • The simple view assumes performance is an individual accomplishment. I have worked 33 years in government and 6 years in the private sector. During all of that time I have seen very few accomplishments that are the result of just one person’s actions. Virtually all good results come from teams of people working together.  Most bad results are failures of a team or an organization. They fail to deal with systemic problems. They fail to provide training for their employees. They fail to provide the technology that would enable success. They fail to create a culture that gets good results. Yet, when they have a failure, they always seem to default to finding someone to blame so they do not have to accept the fact that they might be part of the problem too.

We seem to have reached a point where the solution to a problem is to hunt down the offending party and say “You’re fired!” Maybe it makes us feel better to think we made someone pay for their failure. While we would be better off if we dealt effectively with poor performance, the truth is that government is so complex, cultural norms in agencies are so powerful, and our political process is so broken, that there is rarely a single person or even a small group of people who are truly responsible. If we want to make government better, we need to deal with cultural issues that drive the kind of problems we have seen at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We need to deal with the political dysfunction that can make Congressional oversight more of a sideshow than the powerful tool it was designed to be. We need to deal with the lack of training for Federal managers that would help equip them to deal with problem employees and problem organizations. We need to deal with the unresolved questions of the scope and reach of government. None of those are easy. None are likely to be completed within a daily news cycle, and none of them give someone the satisfaction of finding someone to blame and firing that person. But – if we want to make our government better, they are what we have to do.

 

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Why is Change So Hard to Accomplish in Government?

“We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.”

Vince Lombardi

I always take it with a grain of salt when I hear politicians promising to come to Washington and change the government. They may have the best of intentions, but people who have not spent time working within the bureaucracy rarely understand the complexities of changing government, particularly in this era of partisanship. Real change in government takes bold leadership, parties willing to work together for the common good, people in government who understand the levers of bureaucracy and how to make them work, and a good bit of luck. If all of those things come together, there is a good chance that real changes can be made to happen. If three of the four come together, there is some chance. If only one or two are present, it might be time to pray to St. Jude (the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes). Why so?

Big changes in government are incredibly difficult to accomplish. The organizational inertia that exists in any group is particularly present in government. Here are just a few reasons why I say that:

  • Tendency of people to stay in the same place. I have worked with many people in my career who spent most of their professional lives in one organization. The lack of a more expansive view can limit options those folks are willing to consider. It also limits the solutions they may devise. While we all like to think our best ideas were solely our creation, the truth is that many of them are based on things we have seen before. They might be something as simple as replicating someone else’s solution to a similar problem, or something more complex that is an amalgam of many solutions they have seen applied to many other problems. If all we know if how a single organization does business, we have less opportunity to see other ways of solving problems.
  • Challenges of getting everyone who needs to sign off to do so. It is hard to find someone who doesn’t have their favorite “coordination hell” story. When I was at DHS I used to say that coordination was where good ideas go to die. It is one of the most effective tools of the bureaucrats who do not want change to happen. While coordination is supposed to be a good thing (having the people who need to weigh in getting the opportunity to do so), it is often either by design or by chance the thing that stops progress.
  • Transitory nature of political and military leadership. The average tenure of a political appointee is about 18 months. In the Department of Defense, the typical assignment of an officer is 2 – 3 years. In both cases it means the people who lead organizations are often there for no more than 2 years. That can lead to a very myopic view of the world. My experience was that the military were less likely to fall victim to that than the politicals. When your job is going to last 2 years, 6 months is a long time, a year is an eternity, and more than 2 years means never. Although I spent 31 years as a career employee, I switched to a political appointment at DHS. One of the best senior executives in my office told me a few months into the job that I had successfully become a political appointee. When I asked why he said that, he said “You want everything immediately.” I had to admit he was right. Having an expiration date stamped on your forehead changes how you view time in ways that are not always good. People in such positions need to guard against the tendency to avoid starting things they cannot finish. Many good ideas take years to fully implement. The best political and military leaders recognize that and make decisions based upon what is best for their organization and the taxpayers, rather than what might be best for their careers. The best career employees are willing to point that out to political and military leaders when they forget.
  • Political oversight that is often more focused on politics than good government. As we have watched politics become more toxic, and seen public discourse degenerate into ad hominem attacks rather than policy debates, making real change happen has become even more difficult. Big change is always accompanied by some risk. Whether the risk is in the budget, the likelihood of failure, inability to meet timelines, or any other category of risk, it serves as a disincentive to change agents. It also has a powerful effect on the leaders who have very little time to get things done, who may become far more risk-averse.

Even though change is hard, that doesn’t mean you should not try. There are a lot of great examples where agencies made a tremendous difference in how they do things, such as the Defense Logistics agency’s Business System Modernization and HR Transformation programs. To be successful, agencies have to focus on the things they can control, such as having the right people on the job and leaders who are willing to take risks. They also have to follow some proven strategies for successful change. One of the most powerful is application of program management discipline to major change initiatives. We often see Project Management Offices (PMOs) established for information technology or large acquisition programs. The same principles apply in when an agency is contemplating a major policy initiative or operational changes to improve performance. Those efforts face many of the same challenges they would encounter in a major acquisition or IT program. They may also fail for many of the same reasons.

Government (contrary to popular belief) does not suffer from a lack of good ideas. There are many smart people in government who have great ideas for making their services and operations better. Where government often falls short is in execution – typically for the reasons I have already described. By establishing a PMO for major initiatives, an agency can ensure that they maximize their ability to execute change. The combination of discipline in execution, change management and governance can bring big payoffs in results. When an experienced project manager is teamed with the right subject-matter experts and supported by the agency’s senior leaders, most agencies are fully capable of delivering the kind of transformational change we need in government today.

 

Outplay the Political Sport of Fed-Bashing

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, fed-bashing has risen to unprecedented levels.  And with mid-term elections on the horizon, this popular political sport is likely to continue unabated – with its negative impact on federal employees and potential applicants. It’s apparent that the strain on many feds is showing. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up – it’s time to rally.

I’m honored to be presenting The Resilient Federal Employee,” the opening plenary at this year’s Federal Dispute Resolution Training (San Francisco, July 14 – 17) where I’ll be sharing with hundreds of our federal leaders how to manage and motivate their staff through these tumultuous times.  Among other things, I’ll be taking a candid look at how to reverse the corrosive effects of poor morale, retain valued employees with vital skills, and recruit and hire the best and brightest in such a toxic atmosphere.

If this sounds familiar, I hope you’ll join me in San Francisco where you’ll not only hear what I have to say but will also benefit from the guidance and insight of a highly respected faculty of presenters aiming to help you reduce workplace conflict, avoid costly claims and better manage staff. FDR was one of my favorite conferences when I was in government and I am delighted to be participating. In addition to the opening plenary, I will also be doing a pre-conference session on Reduction in Force and an interview with OPM’s Tim Curry and Ann Marie Habershaw.

Visit www.fdrtraining.com for full details on the July program. Tell them you heard about it here, by mentioning source code NEAL14 when you register.

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