The federal government faces a looming workforce dilemma, with a significant percentage of employees at agencies set to reach retirement age in the near future, while young employees needed to replace them aren’t entering the federal workforce in the needed amounts.
But experts are divided on how best to incentivize young employees to join federal service.
Some members of Congress and witnesses at a Sept. 25 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing advocated for changes to employee pay and benefits, stating that the federal government had failed to compete with the private sector and therefore cannot attract talent on the same level.
Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., advocated for legislation that would grant federal employees 12 weeks of paid family leave, changing the government’s current policy of only offering unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a sick family member.
“A pro-family policy is going to be critical if we’re going to recruit the millennial generation," said Connolly.
Maloney also noted that because more and more families rely on a two-income household to make ends meet, employees are more likely to move to jobs where they can be guaranteed to still collect income while on family leave.
The issue of family leave for feds recently divided senators, as the chamber voted 47 to 48 against instructing the budget conference to push for paid family leave to be included in the final version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act Wednesday evening. The House version of the bill does have the provision establishing 12 weeks of paid family leave, which could still be included in the final bill if House lawmakers push for it.
Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, testified that recent agency restrictions on telework have also kept new workers from applying to federal jobs and made new workers more inclined to leave their posts, as increased travel times to ones’ workplace can have a significant detrimental impact on work-life balance.
According to April 2019 research released by telematics company Geotab, commute times in Washington, D.C., the seat of many federal agencies, are second in length only to New York City, with an average transit time of 41 minutes.
Reardon also noted that the recent 35-day government shutdown, as well as attempts by the White House to freeze pay for federal employees, have had a demoralizing effect on current employees and dissuaded potential employees from seeking government jobs.
But witnesses at the hearing and members of Congress disagreed as to whether federal employees should receive more compensation or are already compensated at a higher rate than their private-sector counterparts.
The disagreement stems largely from conflicting analyses on federal pay.
A 2017 Congressional Budget Office report found that federal employees are paid on average 17 percent more in total compensation, which includes both standard pay and benefits.
But a 2018 report released by the Federal Salary Council found that federal employees are paid on average 31.86 percent less than their private-sector counterparts.
According to Reardon, the discrepancy lies in the methodologies for each of the reports. The Congressional Budget Office focused more on people with comparable education levels, while the Federal Salary Council conducted its study by comparing those with similar job descriptions.
“You can’t take one study and think of it in isolation as that’s the final word,” said Robert Goldenkoff, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Strategic Issues Team.
The Trump administration has argued, based on federal survey results finding that employees don’t feel that compensation aligns with performance, that federal pay should be frozen and benefits changed to give agency leadership the opportunity to offer pay on a merit-based system.
But critics of that plan have worried that the administration has not released a more concrete plan for the alternate kinds of compensation it plans to offer and that such a plan opens the door for political cronyism.
Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, also advocated for the federal government to expand the probationary period for new feds and make it easier and more expedient to fire poorly performing feds, an approach that the current administration has pursued.
But Reardon argued that federal managers already have tools to address poorly performing employees and reward those employees that do especially well. The problem, he argued, is that agencies have been forced to reduce training as a cost-saving measure, resulting in managers that don’t know how to effectively lead people and work with them to improve their performance.
Members of the committee and witnesses were in large agreement that the process for entering the federal workforce, which lasts an average of 106 days, was part of the problem with attracting new talent and that the federal internship program was well behind its intended outcomes.
According to Connolly, new hires resulting from federal internship programs went from 35,000 in 2010 to 4,000 now, due to the fact that many agencies didn’t have a plan for how to use the interns and many left with a dislike for federal service, rather than a desire to apply for full-time jobs.
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.