The government can’t hire fast enough to keep up with the spending bills

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Congress has been on a spending spree for three years: appropriations, the American Rescue Plan, the Chips Act, the infrastructure bill, the inflation bill. It all means federal agencies have to hire somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with someone who thinks one department might offer clues to how to...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Congress has been on a spending spree for three years: appropriations, the American Rescue Plan, the Chips Act, the infrastructure bill, the inflation bill. It all means federal agencies have to hire somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with someone who thinks one department might offer clues to how to it effectively: Bob Tobias, professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: This hiring binge that the government is on is necessary to get these tasks done. But there’s not a great record of hiring process quality in the government, is there, Bob?

Bob Tobias: There isn’t Tom, and the numbers you just articulated of 80 to 100,000 new jobs is on top of the need to hire about 120,000 people just to keep up from resignations and retirements. So agencies are really, I think, feeling a lot of pressure to deliver the promises of that legislation that you just mentioned, especially as a result of this recent election cycle that amplified the legislative promises. So agencies are facing this need to hire up in a very, very tight labor market and an outmoded hiring process that is long, cumbersome and often opaque to the applicants. I believe it’s unfit for the highly sought knowledge workers in general, and particularly the Gen Z target audience born between 1997 and 2012, who are very, very used to fast action and fast decision, these children of the iPhone age. So agencies want to fill these slots before the money disappears. And that’s against the pressure and the need to resuscitate new employee training, onboarding — that includes welcoming people, acculturation, mentors, how they fit in — all of these have to be renewed and resuscitated.

Tom Temin: And there’s also the issue of the variety of jobs themselves. I mean, you mentioned there’s a need to replace people that are leaving. But where do you find people that are experts in the arcana of the tax code that want to go to the IRS, for example? Where do you find people that are willing to risk their lives on the border to replace border patrol officers? So I mean, just the range of things. It is pretty vast.

Bob Tobias: Every single agency has been affected by both the new legislation, filling replacement jobs across the federal government. So every single specialty, and you mentioned the IRS. Where is the IRS going to get the kind of quality tax auditors it needs to go up against big corporations? Where is it going to get the people to go out and collect taxes in person that they have lost over this period of time? It’s a very, very tough labor market.

Tom Temin: And with respect to the ability to hire agencies do have lots of hiring flexibilities. I mean, OPM regularly reminds agencies there’s 124, different flexibilities outside of the standard merit systems-based hire. And those all are within the Merit Systems-based hiring also, but they do have flexibilities they often don’t use.

Bob Tobias: Well, you can’t use a flexibility if you can’t find a person who applies. So the first step is to get people to apply. And then you might have some flexibilities. Right now, agencies are facing this huge problem of competing in a very, very tight labor market. So getting people to apply to the federal government, and particularly these young folks who are the target audience, is really tough. And what we’ve also found is that when the federal government does, in fact, hire these Gen Z folks, they leave very quickly. So their turnover rate is about 12%, as opposed to 6% turnover rate for governmentwide.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias, Professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. And let’s talk about the State Department, because they have been on a hiring binge, you might say, I don’t mean to judge with that word. But they also use internship programs in a variety of areas of State Department from diplomacy itself to Diplomatic Security. And that’s been one of the ways they have brought in people in the collegiate stage of life. And then those people are eligible for full time jobs at State Department.

Bob Tobias: They are doing that Tom and I think they’re also doing something that’s very interesting with respect to the current workforce. So rather than seeking only people from the outside, they are training the current workforce, they are upskilling the current workforce in the areas of cybersecurity global health, and climate change. So they’re training their existing employees. And they’re reinstating something that Colin Powell created called “training float.” So people who are getting this very sophisticated training are pulled off of their regular jobs so they can focus solely on doing the training. And there are enough people to fill in behind them while they’re doing the training so they’re not half present in this very, very highly sophisticated training. I think it’s a double hit. One, current employees get to upskill into new jobs. And the public doesn’t lose while the training is taking place

Tom Temin: Yeah, so that’s really finding — what was the expression from decades ago? — acres of diamonds in your own backyard. You have the people, and presuming they have the brainpower to do one job, if you can motivate them to learn another one, then you’ve got the people right there, right under your own nose. It’s a matter of training, rather than of hiring.

Bob Tobias: That’s exactly right. So you don’t have the expense of the hiring, you don’t have the expense of the initial training. And you can focus on giving them the skills, the new skills that they need to be successful in new jobs in the State Department.

Tom Temin: And you hear a lot about Generation Z; I don’t think they can hire 11 year olds yet, but the older Zs that are coming into the workforce, and the Zs and the Z-pluses or whatever, the people in their 20s and 30s now get a bum rap sometimes. I mean, they’re incredibly motivated. They’re very smart. And they’re very level headed and clear eyed from what I’ve been able to discern. They’re great to work with. But should the government worry about having so many of them in the first place? They tend to move around, they tend to try things? Maybe it’s better to just say, Look, we’re not going to get that generation of 20 year olds, 25 year olds, 30 year olds. When they hit 35, and want to settle down, have a clearer idea of what they might want to do long term, maybe that’s the time to try to get them in government?

Bob Tobias: Well, maybe so Tom, but the fact of the matter is, they’re only 2% of the federal workforce right now. There’s a lot of room for these folks. And as you suggest, they’re highly motivated. But I think the federal government has to adapt to these folks. They want to participate. They’re highly motivated. And yet, they’re interested in a work life balance, and the State Department is advertising now, and taking into account the need for work life balance, something that has never been publicly articulated before. And they’re also, based on their pandemic experience, making clear that people can work at home. So I believe the State Department is a model for adapting their workforce policies to the needs of this new generation of employees.

Tom Temin: And there’s one more aspect to this, and that is if you want to get in a lot of the Z people, the younger people, you need the managers that know how to manage them properly, so that you get them to stay, and that they don’t walk into something that seems like a bureaucratic straitjacket.

Bob Tobias: Well, that’s correct. The fact of the matter is, the current federal workforce is aging. And even first level managers, second level managers are much older, and they find themselves trying to lead their kids. And we always find that it’s hard to lead our kids. So unless I adopt a different approach to meet their needs, I’m going to fail as a manager.

 

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