he Defense Department's eight years of base closing experience taught non-Defense agencies plenty about how to handle downsizing on a grand scale. Not the least of those lessons is the importance of providing employees coordinated, ongoing assistance in finding new jobs. DoD's experience is encoded in new rules requiring each non-Defense agency to create a three-pronged career transition program. Under the program, agencies must:
- Give hiring preference to their own well-qualified surplus and displaced employees.
- Give hiring preference to surplus and displaced employees of other federal agencies, when those employees apply and are well-qualified.
- Create a career transition plan to provide displaced workers services such as skills assessment, resume preparation, counseling and job search assistance.
"DoD's experience was that if you wanted to help people, you have got to get them motivated and to be thinking about other types of employment and provide the support," said Ed McHugh, chief of OPM's Workforce Restructuring Office.
"DoD's priority placement program forces Defense managers to take well-qualified, surplus employees before they have any other kind of hiring options. And again, we're taking that model and the lesson that you really can't just say, 'Well, it would be good if we could hire our RIF'd workers.' You have to say, 'You're going to have to hire these RIF'd people before you look at other candidates.'
"As we're learning [from] the DOD experience, you start as early as possible and you get people enrolled and get them training, and then market them internally."
Instead of simply extending DoD's internal placement program governmentwide, OPM built in a requirement that employees must act on their own behalf, McHugh said.
"We changed it around a little bit to say that instead of having this big inventory of people and then refer them out when jobs become available, we would instead give the employee the right to get selection priority in other agencies when they are more qualified.
"One of the problems DoD ran into at bases is that employees did not feel that the base was going to close, even though it was on the list. This whole denial process deterred them from taking steps in their own interests to try to find another job. So to try to overcome the denial problem and to get employees motivated, we say, 'Look, we'll give you benefits and you'll get selection priority, but you're going to have to apply. You're going to have to go to the career transition center and get your resume and 171 and everything else together.' It's really a change in the concept that somebody is going to take care of you, that you don't have to really do anything but just sit there."
McHugh conceded the new transition assistance is no panacea for the displacement and pain of downsizing. He admitted that non-Defense agencies will not be able to replicate DoD's success at placing RIF'd workers in other government jobs. "In the '80s, we were hiring over 125,000 employees on an average a year in the federal government. Last year it was 34,000," McHugh noted. "Even DoD is pretty candid that the priority placement program alone is not going to take care of all of their people. You need to have early outs. You need to have buyouts. You need to have federal employment opportunities. You need to have private sector employment opportunities."
McHugh is an enthusiastic booster of outplacement assistance because he believes the private sector offers the best chance for laid off employees. McHugh's office offers a vast array of information about career transition services available to agencies.
"Some agencies do it themselves. Others are contracting outside firms. And then there is kind of a middle ground," McHugh said. The Army Career and Alumni Program, for example, provides counseling to military people and civilians and makes these services available to federal agencies. "There also are some places where we have had interagency centers that have been set up by agencies working together to provide these services," McHugh said.
The career transition rules weren't in place to help employees laid off when the Interstate Commerce Commission and Bureau of Mines closed, but the executives running both closures nevertheless made outplacement a priority. The Bureau of Mines took advantage of a contract for transition services already in place at the Interior Department. Dave Brown, director of external affairs and strategic planning for the Bureau, said the outplacement firm, Vantage Human Resource Services Inc. of Arlington, Va., was cooperative and adapted to the Bureau's needs even though it still was working with employees affected by reorganization.
Linda Morgan, who now heads the Surface Transportation Board, took over the ICC knowing she was expected to shut it down. One of her first acts was to find an outplacement program. "We looked at a lot-some contract, private sector groups. We looked at government agencies and decided the State Department offered the best program," Morgan said. "We had field offices. We had a lot of senior employees. And I knew that the private sector, while many of the employees did not want to go to the private sector, was something that we needed to tap into because many of my employees were working in an area that likely would not be easily transferred."
Morgan was pleased with the State Department's program even though she hoped for better results. She warned executives to temper their expectations for outplacement services. Morgan knew at the outset her employees would not be easy to place.
Transition services shouldn't be judged solely by the number of employees who get new jobs, Morgan said, because they provide other benefits as well. "The first benefit to an outplacement program is the solace that it gives your employees. They think managers care about what is going to happen to them. They engage themselves in looking for jobs rather than worrying and being morose at their desks."
For information about transition assistance, downsizing and outplacement programs, call OPM's Workforce Restructuring Office at (202) 606-0960, or fax them at (202) 606-2329.