(John Harman / Staff graphic)
Hiring in the federal government has dropped by a third over the past three years as budget cuts have taken their toll.
And experts fear the collapse in federal hiring could lead to serious gaps in the workforce, hurting the government’s ability to accomplish its mission in the coming years.
Federal hiring of employees from outside the government increased steadily between fiscal 2005 and 2009, when it peaked at 309,162. But since then, hiring has plunged, hitting an eight-year low of 205,457 last year.
Several major agencies cut their hiring by one-third to one-half in 2012 alone.
Hiring freezes brought on by the sequester mean this year will be no different.
“What I told people back [in 2011] was, assume 2012 would be a very tough budget year, and assume two or three years later, that we would look back at 2012, thinking that was the good old days,” said Jeff Neal, former Department of Homeland Security chief human capital officer and current senior vice president of ICF International. “I think that’s happening. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2014 is an even tougher year” than 2013.
Only a handful of major agencies, such as the Labor, Justice and Veterans Affairs departments, saw increases to their hiring last year.
While hiding has slowed, government workloads have continued to increase, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service.
“I can always get a laugh if I go in front of a government audience and ask how many people have seen a decline in their workload,” Palguta said. “It’s a silly question.”
Neal said that as he was preparing to leave DHS in 2011, the agency was looking for ways to cut elsewhere and preserve as much money to hire employees as possible. That meant cutting information technology and travel spending, making more and better use of online training, consolidating redundant systems and saving money by improving the management of the agency’s injury compensation program.
But even that wasn’t enough to avoid a 28 percent cut in Homeland Security’s hiring in 2012.
“One of the unfortunate things about DHS is you can’t decide we’re just going to stop doing DHS’ mission,” Neal said. “But at some point, in an agency like DHS, you cut so much that you have to start cutting into the mission.”
That could mean in future years, the Coast Guard spends fewer hours flying airplanes or sending its cutters into the water for rescue and interdiction operations, Neal said, or that Immigration and Customs Enforcement finds itself unable to deport as many illegal immigrants.
In a statement, Homeland Security said its decline in hirings — from 19,950 in 2011 to 14,350 in 2012 — was “due to budgetary impacts and reduced attrition.”
However, employee separations at Homeland Security — such as resignations, retirements and transfers to other agencies — increased by nearly 3,200 in 2012 to more than 15,721, according to statistics on the Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope website.
“DHS is committed to hiring the most qualified employees across our 22 agencies,” Homeland Security said.
Palguta compared the government’s current decline in hiring to the way he neglected oil changes and other routine maintenance on his first car. That penny-pinching effort backfired, he said, when its engine burned out.
“Like my old ‘56 Ford, at some point, something breaks,” Palguta said. “When we’re talking about the government, that’s a scary proposition.”
Henry Romero, a federal human resources consultant and former OPM executive, said that the swell in hiring from 2005 to 2009 was likely due to the government’s post-9/11 increase in security operations, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the need to quickly respond to the 2008 financial meltdown. Other hiring efforts, such as the increase in Border Patrol staffing, which hit its peak in 2008, also contributed to the wave.
But the end of that hiring binge was soon followed by the rise of deficit-focused Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2010 — many of whom denounced the growth in the federal workforce and pledged to shrink it.
Agencies began offering buyouts and early retirements and freezing hiring to get their workforces down.
The Air Force’s 2012 budget, for example, required it to cut more than 16,000 civilian positions; it announced April 17 that despite buyouts and hiring freezes that cut its hiring by 37 percent that year, it had so far only cut about 15,000.
The Air Force enacted reduction-in-force authorities at 60 installations to cut the remaining 1,000 or so, which could mean some layoffs.
Neal said the decline in hiring could backfire on the government, especially in professions that require years of training and experience.
“It takes two to three years to get a contract specialist who’s a new hire up to speed,” Neal said. “It’s government contracting, and it takes time to learn that stuff.”
Turnover data often ignored
And while most agencies monitor turnover rates, Neal said, by the time they notice large numbers of vital employees such as contracting or human resources specialists have left, it’s often too late.
They’re stuck with trying to hire new employees who will take several years to reach their potential, he said. And until they do get up to speed, those agencies will have serious skills gaps.
Neal said he knows of no agency that has an early warning system that will act like a canary in a coal mine, alerting officials that a serious gap is about to open up in its workforce.
To do so, he said, agencies would have to aggregate and deeply analyze data on retirement and workforce trends.
That data could include how many people in a certain job and agency are eligible to retire, how long after reaching retirement age people in those jobs actually retire, and how people respond to surveys such as the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, among other pieces of information.
These data are readily available to agency HR offices, Neal said. The problem is, most HR offices are already struggling to keep up with their workloads and problems such as furloughs, and don’t have the resources to build a complex predictive model to solve a problem that will emerge a few years down the road.
“Federal HR offices tend to be a bit stressed,” Neal said. “That kind of planning is often overwhelmed by the pressure of today’s business. These folks understand there’s a lot of stuff they ought to, or would like to, do. But when they’re handing out money, HR is usually not first in line to get it. They’re lucky if they do get any money.”
Time-to-hire data delayed
The reduced focus on hiring also may have put hiring reform — one of former OPM Director John Berry’s first major initiatives — on the back burner.
In fiscal 2009, when Berry launched his effort to speed how quickly it takes the government to hire new employees, it took the government 122 days on average to hire a new employee. That number dropped to 105 days in fiscal 2010 — the last year the government published time-to-hire data.
But in its fiscal 2011 annual performance report, OPM could not say whether it had met its goal of hiring employees in an average of 80 days. OPM said in that report that it would publish 2011’s time-to-hire statistic in its fiscal 2012 report.
That 2012 report, which OPM posted online April 15, contained no reference to time-to-hire goals. In a statement to Federal Times, OPM said it did not report the 2011 and 2012 figures because it has been working with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to refine the method used to measure hiring time.
“I’m surprised that they’re reviewing the criteria, since the approaches and the milestones that had been established the first couple of years OPM was monitoring this did not seem a problem,” Romero said.
Palguta said agencies may be struggling to determine how to count how long it takes to fill jobs when budgetary problems keep them from being filled quickly.
“I’m sure in many cases agencies advertised a job in hopes there would be money to fill the job, found out there wasn’t money, and simply did not use the applicant pool that was gathered for that,” Palguta said.
And as agency human resources offices have scrambled to prepare for furloughs or other budget cuts, efforts to speed hiring have likely fallen by the wayside, Palguta said.