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Why federal hiring is harder than ever

Everyone knows the expression “take that job and rock it”. I wondered about its etiology, so I consulted Father Google. Of course, the phrase was the title of a popular song recorded in 1977 by Johnny Paycheck.

The song’s protagonist worked in a factory with a bad foreman. The 70s were the height of the Rust Belt era. The factories have often retained a 19th century atmosphere. Today’s factories are generally clean, highly automated and…

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Everyone knows the expression “take that job and rock it”. I wondered about its etiology, so I consulted Father Google. Of course, the phrase was the title of a popular song recorded in 1977 by Johnny Paycheck.

The song’s protagonist worked in a factory with a bad foreman. The 70s were the height of the Rust Belt era. The factories have often retained a 19th century atmosphere. Today’s factories are generally clean, highly automated and require high skill levels from employees.

Over the same half-century, the federal workplace has also undergone many changes. Computers, automation, the advent of the cubicle are changing the office environment. But that has not fundamentally changed to a model of joint work with the workplace. The sudden shift to telecommuting, however, has broken this office model across the economy.

A report from Deloitte pulls together many of the weird work statistics brought on by the pandemic. Nationally and locally, the government has laid off some 600,000 people, more than jobs lost in manufacturing, wholesale trade and construction combined. In the private sector, labor force participation appears to be stuck at around 62% – rates not seen since the “take that job and hustle it” era.

But hustling the jobs they are. Some 4.5 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs last November. Gartner’s Jackie Wiles writes extensively about what she calls the “big think” people have, leading to quitting their jobs. In this article, she includes statistics from a survey of 3,500 people. Two-thirds of respondents agreed with these statements:

  • “The pandemic has changed my attitude towards the value of aspects outside of work.”
  • “The pandemic has made me rethink the place work should have in my life.”

Employers cannot expect to meet people’s religious or spiritual needs. But, Wiles writes, “Ignoring it is, to say the least, short-sighted. Every organization’s strategic plans contain goals that cannot be achieved without staff.

In this context, it is not surprising that the government still has difficulty recruiting and retaining people. Everywhere you look, the federal government is hiring or trying to hire. But the longstanding challenges of the federal hiring process are compounded by the generational shift in attitudes toward work.

Deloitte concludes that the longstanding “value proposition” for a federal career is no longer enough. His basic formula was that your salary might have a relatively lower benefit, but you have an excellent pension and benefits package, stability, and of course “a strong sense of purpose.” New attitudes towards work-life balance and the new generation’s desire for far more flexibility than baby boomers dreamed of have made this traditional lure less appealing.

So can a system perfected for the Pepsi generation work for the bubbly crowd?

I think it will depend on individual managers, agencies and offices. In other words, if you’re looking for some sort of big legislative overhaul of Title 5, don’t hold your breath. Deloitte and others are advocating for greater use of the dozens of hiring and compensation flexibilities that already exist in the federal government. The authors cite the cyber talent management system designed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Other less tangible qualities of work will be difficult, but not impossible, to institute within the federal framework. For example, focusing on employee well-being, fostering entrepreneurship, more flexible leave for care or other personal needs and of course flexible and permanent telecommuting options. Don’t overlook the training opportunities — “upskilling” — that people find appealing.

Jobs are like other parts of the economy in that they move from sellers’ markets to buyers’ markets. Federal managers sell job openings in a buyer’s market. The same goes for the private sector, but they have more options for people than you do. The mission remains your strongest card, but it will take a lot of creativity to convince a warm body to join your agency.

Almost useless factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

There is an abandoned subway station under New York City Hall. Today, it serves as a U-turn on line 6.

Source: New York City Transit Museum

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