Why federal hiring is harder than ever

Prospective employees are pickier than ever about where, when, how and for whom they'll work

Everyone knows the phrase, “take this job and shove it.” I wondered about its etiology, so I consulted Father Google. Of course, the phrase was the title of a popular song recorded in 1977 by Johnny Paycheck.

The protagonist in the song worked in a factory with a bad foreman. The ’70s were the height of the Rust Belt era. Factories often retained a 19th century atmosphere. Today’s factories are typically clean, highly automated and require significant skills on the part of employees.

For the same half century, the federal workplace has also undergone a lot of change. Computers, automation, the advent of the cubicle changed the office environment. But it didn’t fundamentally change the model of work conjoined with workplace. The sudden switch to telework, though, has broken that office model across the economy.

A Deloitte report gathers many of the weird work statistics brought about by the pandemic. At the state and local levels, government shed some 600,000 people, more than lost jobs in manufacturing, wholesale trade and construction combined. In the private sector, labor force participation seems stuck at about 62% — rates not seen since the “Take This Job and Shove It” era.

But shoving jobs they are. Some 4.5 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs this past November. Gartner’s Jackie Wiles writes extensively about what she calls the “great reflection” people are having, leading to dropping their jobs. In this article she includes statistics from a 3,500-person survey.  Two thirds of respondents agreed with these statements:

  • “The pandemic has shifted my attitude towards the value of aspects outside work.”
  • “The pandemic made me rethink the place that work should have in my life.”

Employers cannot expect to provide whatever religious or spiritual needs people might have. But, Wiles writes, “ignoring it is, at the very least, shortsighted. Every organization’s strategic plans contain goals that cannot be met without people.”

In this environment, it’s no wonder the government has continuing difficulty recruiting and retaining people. Everywhere you look, the federal government is hiring, or trying to. But the long-standing challenges of the federal hiring process are worsened by the generational change in attitudes towards work.

Deloitte concludes that the long-standing “value proposition” for a federal career is no longer enough. Its basic formula was: Your salary might have a relatively lower upside, but you’ve got a great benefits and retirement package, stability and of course “a strong sense of purpose.” New attitudes toward work-life balance, and the desire for the new generation for way more flexibility than Boomers dreamed of, has made that traditional appeal less appealing.

So can a system perfected for the Pepsi generation work for the crowd that prefers bubly, a latter-day PepsiCo product?

I think it will come down to individual managers, agencies, and bureaus. That is, if you’re looking for some sort of big legislative overhaul to Title 5, don’t hold your breath. Deloitte and others argue for greater use of the dozens of hiring and pay flexibilities that already exist in the federal government. The authors cite the cyber talent management system engineered by the Department of Homeland Security.

Other, less tangible work qualities will be hard, but not impossible, to institute in the federal setting. For example, focusing on employee well being, fostering entrepreneurial ways, greater leave flexibility for caregiving or other personal needs and of course flexible and permanent telework options. Don’t overlook training — “upskilling” — opportunities that people find attractive.

Jobs are like other elements of the economy in that they shift back and forth from sellers’ to buyers’ markets. Federal managers are selling job openings into a buyers’ market. So is the private sector, but it has more options to throw at people than you do. The mission is still your strongest card, but it’s going to take a lot of creativity to convince a warm body to join your agency.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

There is an abandoned Subway station underneath New York City Hall. Today, it serves as a turn-around for the 6 line.

Source: New York Transit Museum

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