The U.S. Air Force is seeking to keep members of its Senior Executive Service engaged and fulfilled after paring back its ranks to comply with civilian workforce leadership cutbacks mandated by Congress.

SES is comprised of senior, non-political administrators across government. Under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, defense agencies were directed to cap the number of people holding SES positions by Dec. 31. For the Air Force, SES ranks will total 160 this year, down from 183 a year ago, overseeing a total workforce of nearly 170,000 personnel.

The reduced SES cap makes it more important than ever to keep SES staff, who also leave through retirements and normal attrition. That means more than just creating a job that is stimulating and rewarding, leaders said at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference on Sept. 21.

“Without that consistency in the SES core, it’s hard to maintain the balance as you move forward,” said Anthony Reardon, administrative assistant to Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall. “The real goal of an SES is to weather that storm to be able to provide that consistency throughout the organization.”

The department is working to retain its high-level leadership in the face of top-down orders from Congress to limit the total number of SES positions by the end of this year. For Air Force leadership, that means keeping the workforce it has, and ensuring it stays, by investing in career development.

Turnover rates for career federal employees are higher in the first few years of an administration than at other times, particularly among senior executives. Coupled with an aging federal workforce and the competition for talent with the private sector, stability in leadership can be threatened.

Still, the Air Force is “managing down” to 160 allocated positions, said Hon. Alex Wagner, assistant secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, at the conference.

Stability in these positions is critical, panelists said, because SES members, which hold civilian titles classified above GS-15 and roughly equivalent to flag and general officers, are the major link between these appointees and the rest of the federal work force.

The SES was established to ensure that executive management of the government is responsive to the needs of the nation, and is otherwise of the highest quality, said Kathleen Ferguson, a senior advisor for the Roosevelt Group, at the conference.

SES employees make up just a fraction of the 2 million-strong federal workforce, but hold great influence in managing civilian personnel at home and abroad.

For that power to be wielded to the benefit of the department and the nation’s military personnel and security, panelists said the Air Force has committed to maximizing trainings and mentorship.

“Having served in the military myself for years, I was familiar with the Air Force’s commitment to training and education,” said Venice Goodwine, director of enterprise information technology at the conference. “When I got to the Department of Agriculture, I expected that same commitment. But in three-and-a-half years, I had one training class as an executive. And I had no training budget for my team.”

Goodwine said she took the opportunity for the career advancement opportunities at the Pentagon — emblematic of what other civilian workers may be looking for, especially as agencies are competing with themselves for talent.

Now, Goodwine serves on a career field team that helps advise civilian employees on educational opportunities, career coaching, resume writing or getting credentialed to be able to move upward.

“My vision is not to move people around like general officers,” said Wagner. “My hope and my goal is that we can expand the breadth of expertise because I think a broader expertise helps people find more meaning in their job.”

A 2020 study by Rand Corporation found that although many Air Force civilian employees express high interest in promotion, many also perceive a lack of opportunity for promotion to higher grades, particularly among women and minority groups.

In-house resources like the Talent Management Committee, for example, give a rating for individuals indicating whether they should continue to build tenure in their job or be flagged for increased challenges for promotion or a lateral move, said Reardon.

“I think we’re making great strides in the transparency, and I think that’s the thing that we’re working on most — making sure that we have meaningful feedback to the senior executives,” he added.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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