Mobility cited as key to recruiting top science talent

Mary Ari, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Meningitis and Special Pathogens Branch. Mary Ari, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Meningitis and Special Pathogens Branch. CDC
Job mobility may be the most critical feature federal agencies can offer to recruit talented young people to science and technology positions, panelists said Tuesday at an event hosted by the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government and the Gallup Organization.

"I like to think of the government as a big company," said Daniel Kolenich, a computer engineer with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center. "You find yourself in a position where you may not have your right match or you're not being tested enough, and you can feel free to move around."

Kolenich and two other young federal employees on the panel -- Theresa Valentine Clark, a reliability and risk engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Jason Hyland, lead mechanical design engineer for the James Webb space telescope at NASA -- said the ability to move among jobs within the government influenced their decision to enter and remain in the federal workforce.

Clark noted that the NRC has a professional development program that allows employees to work several types of jobs to "get a feel for the agency" before settling on a specific position. She said she worked different jobs within NRC for two years before finally choosing her current one last year.

The government is eager to establish sound practices for recruiting and retaining skilled employees, especially as it faces a potential loss of 60 percent of its workforce from retirements over the next decade. One of the greatest challenges may be ensuring that government can compete with the private sector in recruiting employees with science and technology expertise.

"We're facing tough competition around the world in this area," said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government. "The number of graduates and those choosing careers in science and technology in this country are not all that encouraging."

In a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of the Generation Y workforce placed intellectual challenges before compensation and job security as a top workplace value.

Mary Ellen Beach, deputy director of human resources at NRC, said her agency has focused on ensuring that employees are consistently engaged and intellectually challenged. To address that, she said, NRC has increased its level of supervisory training. "We need to give supervisors the tools to harness all of this energy and ideas," she said.

McGinnis noted that funding for training and development is often the first to go when agency budgets are cut. But Beach said NRC made a commitment early on to place a long-term value on training and investing in employees.

Kolenich said educational incentives and student loan repayment programs are critical to attracting younger workers. He said his agency allows him to go to school for 10 hours and work 30 hours each week, while still getting paid for a 40-hour work week.

An additional challenge in recruiting, according to several panelists, is the lengthy hiring process. The government promotes a 45-day goal for hiring new workers, though that is not a requirement. "Some agencies hit that [goal] routinely," said Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer. "Others have more of a challenge in doing that and in operating consistently."

An Environmental Protection Agency employee commented that OPM must work to ensure that all agencies have the hiring flexibilities needed. Springer said OPM is trying to extend to competitive service agencies flexibilities in such areas as emergency hiring, pay banding and pay for performance.

"It's about striking the right balance between merit and a fair process and being able to compete with the private sector in terms of pay and time," Springer said.

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