A rush to fill jobs is on

Feds say the time is right to address their work force wrongs

OPM's Dick Whitford says there has been a noticeable increase in visits to federal job Web sites since Sept. 11.

There's a glow about civil service since Sept. 11.

Patriotism and respect for the government run high, and the recession has taken some of the wind from private- sector sails. Now is the time, many federal employees and industry observers say, for the administration to address its work force crisis.

The government has had an uphill battle in competing with the private sector for employees, especially skilled IT workers. But to take advantage of the increased appeal of civil service, the government must move quickly, some observers said.

'People may be thinking of working with the government, but this is a transitory phase and the trend is going to wane again,' said Stephen H. Holden, a former systems manager at the IRS and now assistant professor in information systems at the University of Maryland,
Baltimore County. 'We need to strike when the iron is hot.'

Dick Whitford, acting associate director of employment service at the Office of Personnel Management, said there has been a noticeable increase in traffic at federal job Web sites such as http://www.usajobs.opm.gov.

'Sept. 11 has made people realize how the government touches their lives daily,' Whitford said. 'This interest, coupled with a growth in some [government] programs, makes it the perfect time to deal with the human capital crisis.'

That there is a crisis can be seen in some of the statistics:

' About half of federal workers will be eligible for retirement or could qualify for early retirement by 2004, according to a study, Report to the President: The Crisis in Human Capital, by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio).

' By 2005, nearly 45 percent of senior career executives in the federal government are likely to leave.

' A poll commissioned by the Council for Excellence in Government after Sept. 11 showed that although people between 18 and 29 years old look more favorably on government jobs than older workers, more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans reject Uncle Sam as a potential employer. Only 18 percent said their interest has increased.

Some federal managers and observers say the problem lies with the government itself.

Rick Heroux, program manager for the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system at the Securities and Exchange Commission, has done plenty of recruiting at SEC and in his previous job at the IRS.

'Over the years, I realized that nothing has changed,' he said. 'The starting pay scales are not very attractive, and after about five years, I see we are still behind' the private sector.
He said few people are aware of the types of job opportunities that exist in government.

'The problem is that the word is not getting out there,' he said. 'Young people just look at the money aspect.'
Heroux added that since Sept. 11, the number of applications he has received for computer specialist positions at SEC has increased modestly.

'But that's not because of a renewed sense of patriotism,' he said. 'It's because of the job security in this economy.'

Hiring process hobbled

Despite the more stable employment offered by the government, numerous problems remain, chief among them a labyrinthine personnel process, Heroux said. 'Any personnel action at any agency is a nightmare.'

He said OPM should overhaul the hiring process, which he termed ancient and said is hobbled by convoluted laws.

Darren Denenberg, who holds a doctorate in information systems from UMBC, has had a first-hand look at federal hiring practices.

Denenberg said he always wanted to work for the government. In April, he applied in person for two human resources specialist positions at different grades with the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency said it would tell him within 30 days whether his resume had been accepted or declined.

No one at FAA got back to him, and after numerous follow-up calls, Denenberg said he was told the agency had instituted a hiring freeze and that he should contact the agency later this year.

'It's been several months, and now I am thinking of joining the private sector,' he said. 'I am not making any headway despite contacts.'

To prevent such hassles, Whitford said OPM has made improving the application process a priority. Several agencies are taking steps to make it easier for qualified workers to get federal jobs and to communicate better with would-be employees, he said.

'We are telling the human resources people how important it is for them to acknowledge the receipt of an application and how important it is to treat the citizenry right,' Whitford said. 'We are asking them to use the automation process more effectively and get the answers to them as quickly as possible.'

OPM will enhance its job Web site and post clearer and crisper ads, Whitford said. The agency will work to boost the government image and branding of agencies, plan an outreach program for students and ask agencies to do better work force planning and organizational assessment.

The USAJobs.gov site, which gets about 25 million visits every year, will be made more accessible to those with disabilities, and the list of internships at http://www.studentjobs.gov will be expanded, Whitford said. He said OPM is enhancing recruitment by offering signing bonuses for hard-to-fill jobs and boosting retention by letting managers offer bonuses to workers who stay in certain jobs.
OPM will also promote student loan programs, Whitford said.

Study the competition

The University of Maryland's Holden urged the government to analyze what is more appealing about private-sector employment, he said.
'In some cases, they need to take another look at the rules,' Holden said. 'If an employee spends an hour traveling, then let him work at home two times a week.

'Bring fun to the workplace. Celebrate when there are successes, and ask if there is a business need for rules and regulations.'
The government must find ways to improve its retention of skilled employees as well, Whitford said. 'You just don't assume that once you hire people, they are going to continue,' he said. 'You have to assess what makes a healthy, happy environment and what will make people stay.'

The administration and agencies must keep their focus on developing and maintaining a skilled work force, Whitford said.

One step that may help is the hiring of a chief human capital officer at the 24 largest agencies, as suggested by Sen. Voinovich in a bill introduced in November.

Whitford said establishing such a post would focus attention on the issue.

'Having chief financial officers and chief information officers did just that,' he said. 'We think it's important that the issue gets the attention it needs.'

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