A crisis in slow motion

Tools at hand for dealing with the loss of employees:

  • Recruitment and training bonuses

  • Training and relocation costs

  • Salary increases for hard-to-fill positions

  • Outsourcing of work performed by skilled, now departed, employees

  • Temporary workers for jobs vacated in mid-project

  • Addition funds, if possible, from con-
    gressional appropriators
  • GCN Management Photo by Henrik G. DeGyor

    Labor deputy CIO Laura Callahan says she finds ways to turn work force turnover to the agency's advantage.

    About a year and a half ago, Labor Department deputy CIO Laura Callahan had the chance to practice what she's preached for most of her IT management career: Turnover is not always a bad thing.

    In a microcosm of the brain drain that afflicts agencies, one of her senior staff members retired, taking with him decades of institutional knowledge and skills that could not be replaced easily, if at all.

    And in fact, he wasn't replaced so much as compensated for. Labor filled the position with someone of a different grade level and skills. The position took on a different focus, she said, and parts of it were delegated or outsourced. But in the end, the department emerged unscathed.

    Labor hasn't experienced the mass exodus of talent typical of most agencies, Callahan said.

    Unlike other management crises, worker shortages are likely to be a gradual rather than a sudden process. she said.

    Ebb and flow

    'We realize that the government may face problems hiring IT people, but we're not losing people in droves,' said Edmund Burns, an OPM spokesman.

    Perhaps, but at any given time, some agencies feel the loss more acutely than others.

    The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, currently has 250 vacancies representing about 8.5 percent of its work force.

    At the Air Force Materiel Command, the potential for crisis is pending: 63 percent of its IT work force nationwide is eligible for retirement by 2006.

    Callahan said a key to dealing with a shrinking or fluctuating work force is flexibility in using the hiring tools available. She also looks to turn turnover to the agency's advantage.

    'People in the baby boomer era already are eligible for retirement,' she said. 'How do you plan to make that situation an opportunity, and how do you embrace that in improving the efficiency of your organization?'

    During the 1990s, Callahan saw what looked like imminent disaster: government downsizing. Since then, she's been thinking about how to accomplish the job with fewer workers'or by redefining jobs as she did when that senior staff member retired.

    Send this one out

    Callahan outsourced risk analysis and the development of security systems for the department, the part of the vacant position she thought someone else could do cheaper and more efficiently.

    'We re-examined what kind of efficiencies we could leverage based on what type of work needs to be performed, and we found out we could do it through a variety of other techniques,' she said.

    On a larger scale, recruitment bonuses and relocation expenses for workers have been especially effective. 'I've had very good success,' she said.

    She's even been able to shift money from her budget to increase pay for some positions with a federal salary rate incentive.

    'Agencies have those authorities delegated to them in order to operate within the framework,' Callahan said.

    Managers can offer higher salaries for difficult-to-fill positions if the agency's budget can handle it, she said.

    When a worker with a hard-to-fill skill set leaves, the agency can make a compelling argument to increase the position's salary allotment.

    'It's tied to what your salaries and expenses are, [and what] your budgets can support,' she said.

    Agencies can also go to appropriations committees for additional work force funds, said a staff member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

    Unless OMB and agencies request it, appropriators are not going to know what agency leaders need, he said.

    The SEC asked the Senate Appropriations Committee for $20 million for 100 new workers for an undetermined number of years and received it.

    When workers leave mid-project, Callahan said, Labor often uses the USAJOBS.gov Web site to find temporary workers to help finish projects that can last as long as two years. In the late 1990s, Labor hired temporary workers to create an integrated human resource enterprise resource planning system.

    A March General Accounting Office report, 'A Model of Strategic Human Capital Management,' urged agencies and policy-makers to work together to promote recruitment and retention incentives.

    Give agencies tools

    The report said that agencies need to use 'administrative authorities' to manage their respective employees, and that policy-makers should pursue incremental legislative reforms to give agencies additional recruitment tools and the flexibility to hire and retain human capital.

    Furthermore, all parties need to work together to develop work force reforms, GAO said.

    The Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio, researches, develops and tests weapons systems. Recently the command's annual accession planning showed a potential retirement figure of 63 percent within four years. About 43 percent of the Materiel Command's IT work force is eligible for either early or optional retirement now.

    Accession plans so far show that the Air Force's 10 materiel command centers will need to hire about 512 IT workers between now and September 2006.

    'During the 1990s, business as usual within AFMC meant downsizing,' said Polly Sweet, chief of personnel management and work force shaping.

    'To minimize the impact of this potential loss of expertise, this command has launched an aggressive recruitment and retention effort.'

    Sweet's approach is to use recruitment and retention bonuses, paying off workers' student loans or funding further education.

    She said she wants to create a public Web site that links all AFMC recruitment efforts.

    Sweet recently created standard entrance and exit surveys for managers that 'capture both the health of the organization and the shortcomings in its recruiting and retention effectiveness.'

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