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Federal workforce too reliant on degrees, says White House

In its budget proposal, the Trump administration complains that hiring rules hurt its ability to hire those just out of college and can include unnecessary stipulations. It wants that to change.

President Trump's administration wants to reform federal hiring. It complains of burdensome hiring rules and of losing candidates because filling jobs takes too long. The system "frustrates hiring managers," it said in its 2021 budget proposal.

The Trump administration's proposed FY 2021 budget, which it sent to Congress Monday, calls for "transforming" federal workforce hiring. It said federal rules are making it difficult to fill high-demand jobs, especially in technology. It called the hiring and dismissal rules "lengthy and byzantine" and said "stellar performance is inadequately recognized and poor performance insufficiently addressed."

In short, the Trump administration wants hiring and workforce management rules to be more like the private sector: agile, flexible and capable of responding to government needs.

The Trump administration doesn't blame these rules for any government operational problems. While it cites a workforce that's older than the private sector, it doesn't see that as a negative. But it does express frustration in its ability to hire college graduates with needed skills. It also points out that a large number of federal employees -- relative to the private sector -- have advanced degrees, which it suggests might be a consequence of unnecessary job requirements.

"Over-reliance on degrees can be a barrier to entry" to federal jobs, the White House argued. Indeed, some high-profile private sector firms, such as Google and Apple, are moving away from strict college degree requirements.

The federal workforce is more educated than the private sector. One-third of federal workers have a master's degree or above compared to about 15% at large firms in the private sector, according to the White House.

The federal workforce is also older than the private sector workforce. The average age of federal workers is 46, versus 42 for all others. The age gap is most acute for the youngest workers, with only 7.3% of the federal workforce younger than age 30 compared to 23% of private sector workers.

Age is one thing the Trump administration isn't complaining about. It believes older workers are in need because the workforce is aging throughout the economy. Working past retirement "could be decisive in allowing the U.S. to thrive despite this demographic challenge," it argued. But it also believes that restrictions on federal internships are hurting government IT hiring.

Federal workforce has always been older

The federal workforce has always skewed older, said Jeri Buchholz, who retired as NASA's chief human capital officer and now works as an independent HR strategist.

Buchholz cites federal data from 2000, which shows the average age of federal workers was 46 -- unchanged from today. One reason for the public versus private sector age difference has to do with the expertise being sought, Buchholz notes. "Many jobs in the federal government require a master's degree or higher, such as attorneys and economists," she said.

"Perhaps the federal government should simply acknowledge that it hires well-educated, experienced professionals and start refocusing human capital strategies on the unique requirements of mid-career talent," Buchholz said.

The government employs nearly 2.1 million civilian workers, excluding postal workers. The military employs 1.4 million, and the postal service employs 580,000.

Most young IT professionals are hired in much shorter time frames than that, meaning they are gone before the government ever makes an offer.
Roger BakerFormer assistant secretary for information and technology and CIO, Department of Veterans Affairs

The federal hiring processes cause problems, especially in high-demand technical occupations, said Roger Baker, a former assistant secretary for information and technology and CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who now works as an independent consultant. 

Many federal agencies view getting to an average 90-day hiring process as their "stretch goal," he said, or a goal that exceeds current capabilities.

"Most young IT professionals are hired in much shorter time frames than that, meaning they are gone before the government ever makes an offer," Baker said.

Hiring process is broken

Donald Kettl, a professor at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said the government "is having great trouble recruiting the new generation of workers -- the hiring process is badly broken."

"Many younger workers face large debt burdens, other opportunities, and the need to find good, challenging positions where they can have an impact," Kettl said. "The difficulty of navigating the federal hiring process is nudging many of them to other jobs."

The changing nature of work is creating demands for employees who can work in teams and communicate through social media, according to Kettl. The government also needs people with new skills in big data, data analytics, social media, cybersecurity, among others, he said.

"Put these two threads together: effective and nimble teams full of individuals with cutting-edge skills. That needs to be the cornerstone of the government's workforce of the future," Kettl said.

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