USDA has added over 5,000 employees following staff attrition and low morale

As USDA continues to rebuild its workforce following major staff attrition in 2019, agency leaders are simultaneously focused on broader goals to advance divers...

As the Agriculture Department works to rebuild its staff numbers and workforce morale following major attrition nearly three years ago, the agency is simultaneously turning its focus to broad diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility goals.

USDA has added more than 5,000 employees agency-wide since October 2021 — a staffing increase of 6.3% in the last year — but recruitment is only half of the challenge.

Creating a lasting solution means working on inclusive onboarding practices, to ensure new employees feel like they want to stay for the long run, USDA Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Network.

“We’re taking steps to make sure that they have what they need, that they know that we have been hearing them, that they’re empowered and they can thrive in their jobs,” Bronaugh said. “We want people to come and we want people to stay, so we are really focusing on how we onboard and how we create a good work environment.”

The agency’s staff attrition hit the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) particularly hard, after the two facilities relocated their research bureaus to Kansas City, Missouri, in 2019. The move resulted in 40% to 60% of employees leaving ERS and NIFA, causing the remaining employees to feel often overworked and unsatisfied.

“When you lose that number of people, there’s so much that’s lost — the institutional knowledge, the ability to offer services. People don’t necessarily feel good about their environment,” Bronaugh said.

USDA did not provide staff numbers specific to ERS or NIFA, but workforce numbers from May, the most recent available, show that the facilities have hired a combined total of at least 450 new employees. As the facilities, and USDA overall, continue to hire more employees, Bronaugh said they’re looking to do more to reach different sectors of the workforce as well.

“Honestly, over the last decade or so, there’s probably more we could have done to keep up with the private sector, when it came to things like compensation, pay equity, even creative ways to hire, motivate and retain employees,” Bronaugh said.

Although workforce and DEIA priorities have not always been front of mind, senior leaders are now working to integrate it more. For instance, the department is in the process of establishing an internal DEIA executive council. Each branch of the department is also required to name its own DEIA lead. And the agency just published its DEIA strategic plan, outlining a six-step framework for advancing related priorities and initiatives.

As part of those efforts and as a requirement under the White House executive order on advancing DEIA in the federal workforce, USDA brought in a chief diversity officer, Leslie Weldon, to lead the initiatives. The department is additionally looking to include employee feedback in its efforts.

“We spent a lot of time hosting town halls and focus groups, and talking with employee resource groups to find out some of the challenges they were facing and how we can provide programs that are more beneficial to them,” Bronaugh said.

For internal staff, USDA created a new employee experience program aiming to boost retention.

“Part of that is how do we bring folks on quickly not having things like fingerprinting and getting computers be a frustrating onboarding process? And then how can we make sure people have the support they need to build relationships, and understand that they have a safe place when they have questions,” Bronaugh said.

Some offices have also made individualized efforts to improve employee retention rates. When USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service recently hired and onboarded 1,400 new employees, for example, the FNS program leader handwrote letters to all of the new workers.

“It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but that personal engagement is meaningful to people. [We are] spending a lot of time getting them together in small groups [and] getting them integrated, so that they feel like, ‘Wow, USDA is really paying attention to me,’” Bronaugh said.

Although the agency has hired thousands of new workers over the course of the year, there is still more progress needed to reach the agency’s full staff capacity. USDA said it plans to ask all its offices for permanent hiring targets for fiscal 2023 in the coming weeks.


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