The GAO report urged the Transportation Security Administration to analyze and identify root causes of screeners’ dissatisfaction.

The GAO report urged the Transportation Security Administration to analyze and identify root causes of screeners’ dissatisfaction. Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Federal managers play a key but forgotten role in job satisfaction

COMMENTARY | A recent GAO report examining employee engagement at TSA underscores the need for a people-centric approach in attracting and retaining talented workers.

The continued high turnover problem of TSA’s transportation security officers confirms an important lesson: pay increases have little impact on job satisfaction. The poor performers are more likely to stay if their salary is increased. Studies also show when everyone gets the same increase, it’s the high performers who leave. Pay is a factor in recruiting – both positive and negative – but, as the TSA experience shows, it’s not the answer for solving job vacancy problems.

The Government Accountability Office completed an analysis of TSA’s staffing problems, digging deeply into understanding the root causes of employee dissatisfaction, and exposing issues that have not previously surfaced in discussions of federal workforce management. Significantly, the issues are solidly consistent with what’s emerging in studies in other sectors.  

The analysts relied on regression to understand how each TSO’s responses on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are linked or explain their level of engagement. Multivariate statistics are now widely used in pay equity studies.

The findings also highlight a key but often ignored consideration: managers are primarily responsible for employee engagement. Gallup’s research confirmed that over two decades ago. Working remotely makes their role even more important.

As solid as the GAO report is, it’s silent on a related consideration that magnifies the importance of TSA’s management practices. It’s what’s happening in the country’s labor markets and specifically in airports. Since the start of 2022, unemployment has been close to historical lows. Quit rates are also historically high. There are more job openings than job seekers. It’s triggered intense competition for workers.

Airports have historically had staffing problems. After laying off thousands when COVID began, airlines and airports are struggling to fill job vacancies. TSA employees should have no trouble finding new jobs. Worker shortages are a problem in a number of industries.  

COVID, Worker Shortages, and Gen Z

The COVID crisis followed by the Great Resignation triggered the introduction of the “New World of Work,” a phrase that’s been used in the Harvard Business Review and by the management consultant group, McKinsey. The common thread is the need for employers to transition to new work and worker management practices.

The need for change was heightened by worker shortages in a broad range of occupations, industries and communities across the country. The shortages are contributing to operational problems for government agencies at all levels. The TSA is one of many examples.

This is not a new problem. In 2018 Korn Ferry released a major report, “The Global Talent Crunch,” that showed shortages affect both developed and developing economies. The concluded that the U.S. faced “one of the most alarming talent crunches of any country in our study,” with a projected deficit by 2030 that will exceed 6.5 million highly skilled workers (college educated). Worker shortages have been the subject of reports from a number of organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics JOLTS report shows public sector job openings increased 300%over the decade. In December, the country had 8.8 million job openings and only 6.1 million unemployed workers – 0.7 job seekers for each opening. 

The shortages are attributable to two demographic trends: smaller families, fewer Gen Z-ers starting careers, and the number of Baby Boomers retiring. In 1960 the average family included 3.67 individuals, today it’s 3.13. There are a million fewer young people ages 20-24 than ages 25-29, and each younger cohort gets progressively smaller. The number of young job seekers will continue to decline. 

It’s not clear if Gen Z-ers are avoiding government jobs or actually gravitating to them.  There have been reports they are “turning to low-paid but “stable government jobs” – the “anti-layoff hack.”  Posts on TikTok claim they are looking for job stability despite the low salaries.   

But there are also surveys showing that “more young people are saying the same thing [as older workers]: Salary and career growth are the most important things about a job. And it could explain why Gen Z workers are so much more unsatisfied with their jobs than their older colleagues.” They want good benefits but, for 20-year-olds, saving for retirement is a low priority. A recent survey found 83% of Gen Z-ers said they considered themselves job hoppers, suggesting the TSA experience is not unique.

Focusing on Healthy Organizations

Today’s answer to attract and retain workers is creating “healthy organizations.” Studies going back more than two decades show investing to create a healthy organization will improve performance, reduce turnover, and increase job applications. The cost is nominal except for the time to identify and gain acceptance for needed changes. As one expert explained it, “a people-centric approach to all aspects of work” contributes to an organization’s success. Simply stated, it’s a win-win for organizations and their employees.  

But the argument has not gained acceptance in government. In 2018, the National Academy of Public Administration published the report, “Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance” but it was ignored by the Trump administration. It was not until t Spring 2023 that the Office of Management and Budget issued the memorandum, “Measuring What Matters: Organizational Health and Performance.” Months later, the Office of Personnel Management released its, "Workforce of the Future Playbook," which includes a section on organizational health, but again it focuses on measurement, not the way workers are managed.

McKinsey took the lead in developing an Organizational Health Index but it’s complicated, using 38 measures of management practices. While McKinsey’s focus is company performance, a thread running through the list of practices highlights the importance of employee management – "shared vision," "employee involvement" to "role clarity" and "personal ownership." More than 20 practices impact an employee’s work experience and their engagement.

GAO reached a similar conclusion, identifying five “key drivers of engagement.” The first is “Managing and recognizing employee performance.” As GAO reported, one of challenges at TSA is “inadequate formal and informal recognition for good performance.” Surveys show Gen Z-ers expect recognition for accomplishments. It’s consistent with “best practices in every sector except government. Each of the drivers is linked to how managers manage.

Managers Play Vital Roles

Gallup’s research confirms, “Managers are ultimately responsible for engaging employees, coaching for high performance and promoting long-term, individualized development.” That’s consistent with both McKinsey’s and GAO’s analyses.

In government, however, managers have never been prominent in discussions of agency performance. The NAPA report, the OMB release and the OPM playbook each focus on the use of data but are silent on the role of managers. That’s also true for college MPA programs where it’s rare to find a course on day-to-day workforce management. Thought leaders in the private sector make a very different argument. In a new book, Power to the Middle: Why Middle Managers Hold the Key to the Future of Work, three McKinsey consultants highlight research showing, “…companies able to tap the potential of middle managers deliver three times greater returns to shareholders.”  

Managers are compared with coaches in sports. The coaches of the best teams are celebrated, their names make the headlines. Winning seasons are rewarded with million dollar, multi-year contracts. Successful teams do not promote coaches to other jobs. Coaching, compared with controlling supervision, is a far more satisfying and productive role for managers.

In the distant past, when civil service systems were developed, government emulated the management practices then common in industry. But now, to remain competitive for essential talent, business leaders are rethinking the role of managers. It is and will be a difficult change; leaders know it is essential to their long term success. The changes have to start at the top and cascade down to frontline supervisors.  

One of the success stories in government is GAO. When David Walker served as comptroller general, he argued that leaders need to “build a burning platform,” provide a “call to action,” and show “a way forward.” GAO just received “the highest possible rating” from an international peer review team. At the state level, in 2011 Tennessee initiated civil service reform led by Gov. Bill Haslam. The state invested years in retraining and coaching managers and that investment will make an agency a “great place to work.”