WASHINGTON — The White House’s Office of Personnel Management gave federal agencies more latitude in filling short-term STEM positions, allowing them to last as long as a decade if needed to get projects done, according to a workforce rule issued Thursday.
OPM, which acts as the human resources office for millions of government employees, previously allowed agencies to bring on workers for temporary jobs generally lasting at least one year but not exceeding four. The new regulation, which takes effect on Jan. 3, extends the duration to 10 years without OPM’s approval for science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related occupations.
The goal is to alleviate administrative burdens on agencies that would otherwise be subject to difficulties to attracting talent for temporary projects. OPM told Federal Times that agencies including NASA and the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Interior and Transportation are likely to benefit.
As the government competes for white-collar professionals that are lured by the private sector’s benefits, pay and flexible job perks, term appointments up to a decade give individuals who come to work on a temporary government job more time to refine their skills and network. Agencies have also been increasingly requesting such authority, according to OPM.
The Office also said that this type of employment may be a way to entice candidates who are not looking for a conventional 30-year career in government but may still have valuable experience to bring. In turn, the government sees its projects to completion.
Term appointments may also allow agencies to accommodate extraordinary workload or maintain operations when funding is not certain.
Over the last five fiscal years, some 36,688 appointments were made in the STEM-related occupations covered by this final rule. Of those, more than a third were extended beyond the four-year term, which OPM cited in arguing for the 10-year maximum.
“The extension of STEM term appointments will provide DOE greater flexibility to attract and retain highly qualified talent, allowing them to see projects to completion” said Todd Turner, deputy chief human capital officer at the Department of Energy. “With the passage of President Biden’s Climate Agenda (the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act), DOE’s reliance on a diverse, qualified STEM staff is imperative, and this authority provides an additional recruitment tool for DOE to utilize in meeting its mission.”
In September 2020, the Office introduced the idea as a proposal after finding that the work performed by STEM positions often lasts more than the previous limit of four years. STEM skills also change at the pace of technological evolution, so agencies needed even more room to quickly fill vacancies before skills and projects become obsolete, it said.
Agencies may also be less reliant on contractors alone who often dominate STEM projects.
“I think that the idea that this is somehow going to be a substitute for contracting out is not realistic,” said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. "
Longer term appointments also enable agencies to have STEM hires placed in managerial or supervisory positions throughout the life cycle of a time-limited project, offering stability in leadership even to non-permanent teams. Though, notably, the 10-year term appointment authority cannot be used to fill positions in the Senior Executive Service.
The Department of Defense has its own version of this authority, which it also extended in 2017 and 2018 to eight years. Approximately 35% of the department’s term and temporary personnel were converted to permanent civilian positions within the federal government.
OPM addressed concerns from stakeholders
When this rule was first proposed two years ago, OPM fielded a number of comments sharing concerns and suggestions.
One comment said that 10-year term appointments might attract political appointees who could use the position as a gateway to the civil service, especially as Congress has attempted to shut down any future attempts at creating separate, at-will classes of employees similar to Schedule F.
In response, OPM said it would evaluate how the rule pans out for STEM occupations before extending it to other subsets.
“This whole idea of 10 years where a person has no career status, it’s cruel,” AFGE’s Simon said. “It’s counterproductive to any kind of recruitment or retention goals that the federal government they have.”
Another comment brought up benefits eligibility for term employees.
Term appointments are excluded from coverage under the Civil Service Retirement System but generally are subject to the Federal Employees Retirement System, according to the regulation. Employees on term appointments are also not precluded from being included in bargaining units and represented by labor unions.
Term employees are eligible to receive health insurance and life insurance, participate in the Thrift Savings Plan and earn paid leave and General Schedule within-grade increases. That time spent as a term employee may be creditable towards retirement under certain circumstances.
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.