Report: Energy Department needs hundreds of scientists

The Energy Department has significant recruitment and retention problems, and needs to immediately fill nearly 600 scientific and technical positions or risk not being able to meet its missions, according to a new report from the agency's inspector general. Although Energy acknowledges its recruitment and retention problems, the department doesn't use existing incentives to attract and keep employees, said the inspector general's audit, "Recruitment and Retention of Scientific and Technical Personnel." The report recommended the department develop a more comprehensive plan for tackling workforce shortages. "Given historical rates of hiring and attrition, the department may face a shortage of over 1,800 scientific and technical specialists in less than five years' time," said the report. Energy has about 9,900 permanent employees, including 4,600 scientific and technical personnel. According to the audit, Energy has lost an average of 320 employees a year since 1995 in the 57 specialized job series studied. During the same period, the department hired an average of only 97 new employees with specialized skills each year. Contractors operate many Energy Department labs. But, the lack of scientific and technical personnel to oversee the work of contractors could create management problems, the report warned. At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, a two-year shutdown of the lab's plutonium facility was attributed in part to high turnover of federal employees who ensure that proper procedures are followed, the report said. Despite a 1998 department-wide initiative to address workforce needs, Energy has failed to effectively use existing tools, including bonuses and "excepted service" authority, to recruit and retain employees. Excepted service positions are excluded from competitive civil service procedures and are designed to give agencies more flexibility in hiring skilled employees. The IG audit found that from 1997 to 2000, Energy handed out just 157 bonuses and allowances for more than 4,800 technical and scientific personnel. The department attributed the low number of bonuses to a fear that morale would suffer among employees who weren't honored.

Energy has a total of 700 excepted service positions, but as of last month, only 140 excepted service employees were actually working at the department, according to the report. In April, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semi-independent nuclear weapons agency within Energy, drafted a proposal to fill up to 300 excepted service jobs. The report also blamed budget cuts and a decade of government downsizing for the 24 percent reduction in Energy's staff between 1995 and 1998. The inspector general's report recommended that the Energy Department develop and put in place a comprehensive workforce planning program that includes quantifiable recruitment and retention performance measures. The report also encouraged the department to "aggressively and creatively" use available human resources tools and submit a five-year workforce restructuring plan with its fiscal 2003 budget. The Office of Management and Budget directed agencies in May to submit such plans. The Energy Department agreed with the inspector general's report and plans to hold a human capital "summit" to begin working on its workforce management plan.

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