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Human resource executives: Tight budgets, brain drain challenge federal workforce

With baby boomers hitting retirement age, federal agencies expect challenging years ahead in grooming the next crop of leaders, managing heavier workloads, and attracting skilled professionals to work for the government, according to a recent survey of federal executives.

Fifty-five federal executives told the Partnership for Public Service that their main challenges were declining budgets, high turnover due in part to retirements, inadequate leadership and succession planning and competency gaps in human resources and agency leadership skills.

"The folks in government are seeing that it's getting harder than it's been in quite awhile to manage well because of attrition," said John Pagluta, vice president for policy at the Washington-based nonprofit. "Experienced folks are leaving, partly from negative public attitudes" about government employment.

Retirements are up year-over-year by 25 percent, the partnership found. Around 100,000 people leave the federal workforce every year, Pagluta he said. Fifty percent are retiring, he said, and 40 percent are quitting. The remaining 10 percent are fired.

The federal workforce has been declining since its 10-year peak of 3.4 million full- and part-time workers in May 2010. Preliminary figures from July put the workforce at slightly over 2.8 million, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When people left government employment during the Clinton administration, federal agencies had money to hire contractors to get work done.

It's a different story today, Pagluta said. Agencies are curtailing internal spending, as well as expenditures on outside contractors.

"Outsourcing is less likely," the partnership noted in its report.

About half of the people interviewed for the survey were Chief Human Capital Officers, or CHCOs, for their agencies. The CHCOs serve as chief policy advisors on human resources management issues to their agencies' leaders.

"We have been dealing with the issues raised in this report for a number of years and were not surprised to see them raised again," said Kathryn Medina, executive director of the CHCO Council, which coordinates the CHCO executives' efforts.

The CHCOs and others generally agreed that competition for the best talent is increasing. Many of the government jobs require well-educated employees, often with advanced degrees. The federal government is in direct competition with private employers for workers with specialties in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, also known as the STEM fields.

To take one example: The government has identified a serious need for trained cybersecurity experts who can help to secure agencies' defense and civilian computer networks.

The National Science Foundation has awarded $128 million since 2003 in education and training grants to universities across the country, typically in the form of full scholarships to attract students to work in information technology for the federal government.

As part of the CyberCorps program, Towson University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Harford Community College said last month they will have access to several million dollars in funding to help students study cybersecurity.

Students who receive scholarships typically have to go to work for a federal agency for a period of time upon graduation.

The federal workforce consists of both blue-collar and white-collar workers, maintenance workers and research scientists. The workers have endured pay freezes, heavier workloads, and budget uncertainties in recent years.

"Shrinking budgets have resulted in disrupting the mission of the agencies," said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents 110,000 workers. "There's little money to pay for training and career development for employees."

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Suggested reforms

•Reform civil service, including changes to the federal pay system, hiring process for veterans and others

•Stay the course on successful initiatives

•Improve executive succession planning

•Increase standardization of human resources information technology resources across agencies

•Increase the use of data and metrics to improve worker performance and hold people accountable

Source: Partnership for Public Service, "Bracing For Change", August 2012

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