Today’s job seekers want things our current system cannot provide

Ronald Sanders, a former career senior federal executive of more than 20 years and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, explains why the C...

Congress is considering legislation that will enable federal agencies to better compete in a labor market that no longer exists, with tools (and assumptions) rooted in an obsolete, tenure-based system that doesn’t address the needs and wants of many of today’s job applicants.

The ‘Chance to Compete Act’ is like chicken soup

Based on reporter Drew Friedman’s excellent article published earlier this month by Federal News Network, Congress seems poised to pass the so-called “Chance to Compete” Act.

While I support its passage, it’s like chicken soup: While it can’t hurt, I’m not sure it’ll really help agencies live up to its rather presumptuous title. Rather, I think it’s a prime example of “reforming” our civil service system to compete in a labor market that for most agencies and applicants, no longer exists.

Here’s why. The law — which enjoys almost unanimous bipartisan support, most likely because it’s so uncontroversial — is based on the faulty assumption that today’s civil service applicants want what we’ve always offered them in the past: Predictability. That is, nothing more (or less) than a 35-year career comfortably ensconced in a monolithic, “one size fits all” federal government, working their way up the ranks in a single agency where almost all the things that affect them are based on impersonal, tenure-based personnel rules that leave no room for individual judgement or contribution.

That comfortable career may be true for some — after all, today’s applicants are quite diverse when it comes to what they want in a job — but for the most part, assumptions about tenure, time on the job, years of service and the like (the more of those things the better) simply no longer apply to many of those in today’s applicant pool. So, unfortunately, the Chance to Compete Act is irrelevant to them, and to the agencies that are trying to compete for them.

Today’s job seekers want a system based on contribution, not tenure

Today’s job seekers do not want a job that is part of a civil service system that relies almost exclusively on impersonal, formulaic rules that are largely based on time and tenure, the slow and inexorable ticking of the clock.

Most of the current research literature, as well as the “best practices” of leading organizations, tells us that prospective employees want flexibility above all. And they want it in all things employment-related, from starting salaries, work hours and duty location, to pay increases, promotions and career paths

But just look at today’s civil service system. Just about everything — all of the bureaucratic rules specifically designed to take as much human judgement as possible out workplace judgements — is based on time on the job. And that’s not what many of today’s job seekers want.

  • Career patterns. Many prospective employees — especially those fresh out of two- or four-year college or the military — are not looking for long, predictable, ‘clock-ticking’ careers in which they can patiently move up (over the course of decades) a well-defined, stable career ladder of a single employer. Rather, they’re looking for variety, shorter-term work (and life) experiences that give them variety, that let them encounter something new and different. In other words, their careers are more likely to resemble Ronin, not Samurai (look it up on Google).
  • Learning opportunities. Another one of the things that prospective employees look for is the chance to learn, on the job and in the classroom, and learn quickly. What sorts of training programs are offered? And what about skills and longer-term career development and educational opportunities, especially over a year or two at best, not over decades. Formal training programs (including internships and job rotations) that award some sort of credential, are especially appealing to many of today’s applicants.
  • Promotion and reward systems. In that regard, most prospective employees — especially those in today’s labor market — are also quite impatient when it comes to contribution and pay. They are looking to make a difference quickly, to have an impact right away, and they want to be rewarded right away (with something tangible) as well, not one, two or three years downstream. They simply do not want to be told “Just wait your turn,” but that’s the message under the General Schedule. The same is true for promotions. Most are based on years of experience — agencies have little else to go on — and they tend to be limited (by rules and culture) to an upward movement in a single agency. There’s no such thing as planned mobility.
  • Retention and retirement. And finally, they also want a better work-life balance, one that allows them to take more personal leave more often and more quickly, perhaps even working remotely (or at least with much more flexible hours and days). And they also want to work longer, not necessarily each workday or workweek but over their working lifespans. Most are still healthy and vital when they (finally) reach retirement eligibility, but we encourage them to leave and make it hard for them to come back. So, they look elsewhere, and the federal government gets no return on investment on decades of experience.

Bottom line: Today’s prospective employees want to reap the benefits of working — whether it’s intrinsic and intangible like learning, or something more concrete, like pay, promotions, leave and benefits — far more quickly. Whatever it is, they want it now, not years from now! The federal government can’t offer them that speed, and in today’s hypercompetitive, “seller’s” labor market, that means the best of them will go where they can get those things.

Yet, our civil service system is almost exclusively based on time

And yet the federal government’s civil service system offers just the opposite. It hires based on length of experience: the more the better. It bases starting salary on that experience and it gives within-grade salary increases based on time in that pay grade. Protections and tenure come early (after an unrealistically short probationary period) but once tenured, an employee’s leave, pensions and benefits are all geared to incentivize staying power. Thus, patience and not performance is a virtue.

And that system is largely closed to outsiders. Temporary, “in-and-out” appointments are designed for those with few skills or in-between jobs, offering little in the way of benefits. That’s not what applicants (many with portable science, technology, engineering and math skills) are looking for in today’s “gig” economy. Mid-career movement is also difficult, not so much from the outside-in but between agencies. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that once in, if you want to leave an agency, there must be something wrong with you!

Again, the assumption is that once you make your way into the civil service, you’ll stay in until you retire (or die), and everything you’ll earn in the process will be based on how long you stay. And you’ll do so almost entirely with the same agency.

Today’s job seekers have alternatives and are looking at them.

Thus, it’s no wonder that too many prospective employees, young and old alike, look elsewhere. Indeed, while many of them want to “give back” and serve the public in some way, few want to do so forever, and as a result, they look to organizations that have the flexibility and agility to respond to their needs, including the contractors and non-profits that do much of government’s work today.

And with all due respect to its many proponents, the Chance to Compete Act doesn’t really help in that regard, insofar as it codifies a smallish set of best practices—like skill-based hiring and the use of subject matter experts (SMEs) to review applications. Like chicken soup, those best practices may help in some cases, but the best, most competitive (pun intended) agencies have been employing those practices for years, so they don’t need a law to tell them to continue.

And for the rest, there’s likely a good reason that they haven’t adopted them, to include a lack of staff resources. The proposed act doesn’t help much in that regard, especially at a time when non-national security budgets are uncertain, and many agency operations may soon be shut down. And the really bad news is that it’s a law that ignores the hyper-partisan debate going on in the halls of Congress over the very future of the federal civil service.

But all that notwithstanding—after all, these are just temporary phenomenon in the grand scheme of things—the real problem is systemic. The “competition” that the Chance to Compete Act speaks to takes place in the context of a larger civil service system that just exudes longevity, and the statute would make no attempt to reverse it. So, treat it like the chicken soup that it is — it’s okay as far as it goes but it does nothing to really fix the system.

Dr. Ronald Sanders is a former career senior federal executive of more than 20 years. A Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, he also serves on the American Society for Public Administration’s National Council. In addition, he has served as chairman of the Federal Salary Council, associate director of OPM, DOD director of civilian personnel policy, IRS chief human resources officer and the Intelligence Community’s first associate director of national intelligence for human capital, as well as a vice president for a large consulting firm and the director of a university school of public affairs.

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