Perks, Pride and Preparation
Managers use special benefits, the aura of public service, career grooming and other techniques to hang on to top talent.
Joyce France looks at the want ads in the newspaper on Sunday mornings and worries. She thinks of the more than 19,000 information technology workers at the Pentagon, where she is director of policy, planning and integration for the deputy chief information officer. A few years ago, in the midst of the high-tech boom, the Office of Personnel Management gave the Defense Department and other government agencies the ability to offer special pay rates for technology workers. But now, OPM is considering instituting regular pay rates again.
"They are going to pull the rug out from under us," she says. And France knows how desirable Defense-trained technology workers are. In the past year, she's received two unsolicited overtures from companies that work with the department. France has been joined in her campaign against ending the special rates by the Chief Information Officers Council, NASA and the State Department. As a result, OPM has agreed to study the issue further and to hold off acting until 2006.
The good news is France's concerns are more the exception than the rule. Across government, attrition remains low and steady, at a rate of 5.6 percent per year. The private sector average is more than 20 percent. Government's low rate has given credence to those who dismiss concerns about retention. They argue that government always will be an attractive employer because it offers competitive salaries, above-average retirement and health benefits, and relative job security.
The bad news is attrition is rising in some pockets of government. Among France's technology workers, the rate is actually below the government average, but it has more than doubled from about 2 percent to 4.2 percent in recent years. And there is some evidence that younger workers, especially those with highly sought skills, such as computer science majors, are especially difficult to retain. For example, more than half of those chosen for the now-defunct Presidential Management Intern Program in the mid-1990s left government within five years, according to a report by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. The Office of Personnel Management is revamping the old Presidential Management Intern Program, renaming it the Presidential Management Fellowship Program, in part to give it a more elite feel.
One factor contributing to rising attrition in pockets of the workforce is the growth in the number of employees covered by the more portable of the two federal retirement programs. The percentage of government workers in the Federal Employees Retirement System, instituted for almost all workers hired after 1983, is growing compared with the Civil Service Retirement System. CSRS employees now make up less than 32 percent of government workers. In 1993, they were 54 percent of the total. While CSRS discourages attrition by requiring long service in exchange for a generous pension, FERS' benefits are not as closely linked to tenure.
Another factor, according to human resources experts, is a profound shift in attitudes about careers among younger people. For older workers, loyalty and stability are key cultural attributes. The implied contract says that to get to the top, you pay your dues and wait your turn; if you do so, then your employer will take care of you. Many younger workers, perhaps because of the downsizing and outsourcing that have swept both the private and public sectors in the past two decades, view their jobs more cynically.
Joseph Moravec, commissioner of the General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service, says he's learned a lot about younger workers' attitudes by watching his daughter-a recent college graduate-and her friends find their first jobs. "In my era, it was considered very important to stay at a job and not to change jobs precipitously," he says. "Today, there is no opprobrium to moving frequently early in a career, sometimes for just a little more money."
That's one reason Moravec is a believer in civil service reform, which he says will enable government to compete for top talent by offering first-rate employees higher salaries and more rapid promotions. Top performers want to be surrounded by other high fliers, he adds, which means that not all attrition is a bad thing. Moravec calls it "pride of association." It's why ambitious college graduates fall all over themselves for jobs at investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and consulting firms like McKinsey & Co. Both are known for attracting top-tier talent. "Weeding out mediocrity is very important," says Moravec.
Some dismiss the claim that attitudes about work have changed radically. John Marshall, until recently the assistant administrator for management at the U.S. Agency for International Development, says AID has been overrun with applicants for Foreign Service positions. Many, he says, are glad to take pay cuts in order to take a job they think they will love. "People don't go into this business to make a fortune," he says. Rather, they are drawn to government because it can offer young people greater responsibility more quickly than in the private sector, as well as some pride in public service, he says.
The bottom line is no one knows whether the federal government will have an attrition problem in the future. What is certain is budgets in most agencies are tight, and hiring freezes long have been one of the first steps agencies take to close funding gaps. So if an employee leaves, it might be impossible to replace him.
In an effort to keep their best talent, agencies are starting to use a variety of benefits approved by Congress: signing, relocation and retention bonuses; special pay rates for highly sought professionals; student loan repayment; and telework. Thanks to the 2004 Federal Workforce Flexibility Act, this year agencies can offer extra vacation to more experienced hires and for time spent traveling for work. And agencies are starting to respond to the perceived needs of younger workers by training managers to devote more time and energy to their employees' career development and by spelling out for new workers the great possibilities that could await them in government.
Camaraderie and Purpose
The Social Security Administration tries to give employees a sense of camaraderie with their peers and a connection to the agency's mission: providing income to elderly and disabled Americans. Between 1998 and 2000, in SSA's Kansas City, Mo., region, attrition among new hires was more than one in four. Like most government agencies, SSA hadn't done significant hiring in years, and its older workers were rapidly approaching retirement. For an agency that processes thousands of claims annually and issues millions of checks to elderly and disabled Americans, the situation was troubling.
Those new hires who left said they just "didn't understand this agency," says Connie Witmer, an SSA recruitment and retention coordinator for the region. "There was a disconnect." Witmer traced one problem to the agency's decision to scale back group training sessions for new employees in favor of interactive video training, where employees learn the ropes using educational software on their computers. The training, while effective and a sure-fire cost-saver, stripped new employees of a chance to bond with other novices and to get a sense of SSA's mission and history.
Witmer says that 28 years after her own initial training, she still keeps in touch with some of those who went through it with her. Sensing that new employees were thirsting for that kind of connection, SSA launched the New Employee Orientation and Networking Program three years ago. It brings together new employees from all SSA locations in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska for three days of seminars and networking sessions in Kansas City. Meeting in groups of 15 to 30, they are introduced to the history of SSA and receive advice on tips for success and career development aid. Witmer estimates that it takes two to three years for a new claims representative at SSA to get fully up to speed, and without group training, many were becoming discouraged during that time. They didn't realize that their peers were going through the same transition.
A central element of the program is a dialogue about SSA's public service mission, a distinct advantage the agency-and all government agencies-have over their private sector counterparts. Studies confirm that young workers seek employment that will allow them to do good for others. Ramona Schuenemeyer, the acting regional commissioner for SSA in Kansas City, often meets with the classes. Her first line: "My name is Ramona and I'm a public servant." The new employees "are just awed by that," says Witmer. And Witmer attributes the bonding-and sense of public service that comes out of the sessions-to reducing attrition. Since the program was instituted, attrition has fallen to 8 percent, though SSA officials say that other factors in addition to the orientation program have helped.
Managers, initially skeptical of the program, also have come around. They criticized orientation as "just sending [new workers] off for three days of fun at our expense," recalls Witmer. But the results have turned attitudes around. "Now, it's gotten to be where someone is hired and the manager calls to ask, 'When can we get them to [new employee orientation]?' " she says.
Looking to the Future
Surveys show that employees most often leave jobs because of poor relationships with their immediate supervisors. But usually the root cause is an employee's sense that the manager isn't looking out for his professional development and that he's stuck in a dead-end job. Good employees crave training, both because it allows them to do their jobs better and to advance, but also because it increases their employability in general.
Three years ago, the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology hired Herbert Barber, a professor with the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., to create a leadership development program. Armed with a Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology and more than 20 years' experience training managers, Barber developed the New Leader Program, designed to teach employees who grew up on NIST's technical side to lead. It provides training sessions spread out over one year.
New managers take off for Gettysburg, Pa., where they walk the battlefield. Touring the site of the best-known Civil War fight helps implant Lesson 1 in Barber's "situational leadership" curriculum: A leader must be adaptable. Barber explains that there is no one best leadership style; rather, a leader must learn to relate to every employee. Barber regales the group with tales of Civil War leadership and how an inability to adjust plans-a failure of situational leadership-contributed to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Another point of the excursion, Barber says, is to provide a chance for socializing among the executives, to get them away from the day-to-day pressures of the office and to kick off the program on a fun note.
After a weeklong introduction, employees are assigned to groups of 10. They meet monthly, select topics and listen to speakers arranged by Barber. Recent subjects have included motivating others, dealing with difficult employees, being assertive and understanding the political environment. The second half of each meeting is a discussion of the new managers' efforts to put theory into practice. These discussions, like those at the SSA training sessions, provide employees with a sense of companionship as they adjust to the trials of management. Finally, each new manager is assigned a peer coach to help sort through options when quandaries arise.
Barber recently launched another program for aspiring leaders. Managers nominate participants, who go through a battery of leadership assessments and lessons. Then they can sign up for a mentor, attend a leadership seminar series, go on a developmental assignment and participate in special study groups, which evaluate employee concerns at NIST and report back to management. "Because of the uncertainty people feel about their employment these days, they need to have a feeling that they are learning and growing and developing," Barber says.
More than a decade ago, the Agriculture Department's National Agriculture Statistics Service hired Linda Raudenbush, a former AT&T human resources professional, to bulk up the agency's training for executives. She brought to USDA a management concept called "action learning," a problem-solving method that reinforces the art of questioning and listening. When a management problem arises in the workplace, Raudenbush has found, "the answer is almost always that you have a communication problem."
Under Raudenbush's tutelage, new managers in the program meet once a month. Each is asked to present a management problem during the course of the training. After the problem is introduced, the others can ask questions but cannot make statements. The goal, says Raudenbush, is to create an environment that's conducive to "reflection, questioning, working on problems and building a team." The seminars try to inculcate in managers the notion that their first priority is to encourage employees to give their all. "People leave jobs because they don't get along with the blockhead who is their boss," she says.
Beating the Odds
Despite a serious nursing shortage-72 percent of hospitals didn't have enough nurses in 2004, according to the American College of Healthcare Executives-Veterans Affairs Department hospitals added 5,000 nurses to their staffs last year. A combination of competitive pay, family-friendly working conditions and an appealing mission helped the VA compete successfully in a tight labor market, says Thomas J. Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for human resource management and labor relations at Veterans Affairs.
The VA's strategy has been to dispel misperceptions about the quality of its facilities and care by reaching out to medical and nursing schools. More than 100 VA facilities are affiliated with one or more schools, and last year, the department trained 87,000 health care professionals, including future doctors and nurses, physical therapists, social workers and others. Trainees are barraged with marketing about VA's mission. Posters featuring the motto, "Heroes taking care of heroes," adorn most facilities. At the same time, trainees are shown that VA has invested heavily in first-class equipment. VA's electronic system for tracking medical records, for example, is considered the best in the industry.
The department also stresses that it can help new employees with student loans and scholarship money in addition to offering pay rates that are competitive with the private sector. Through 2009, VA expects to pay about $61 million in student loans and scholarships. More than 3,400 employees receive assistance. "The private sector doesn't have the same support systems for nurses," says Hogan.
The efforts have paid off. A survey of nursing trainees found that before their training, 30 percent said they would consider VA employment. After the training, nearly 70 percent said they might join the VA. Those are tangible results of which Hogan is proud. He and the other HR experts say that initiatives like the ones they have launched will help managers across government hold on to and attract talent whether attrition waxes or wanes.