DoD's Troubling Civilian Attrition

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Federal Times
February 18, 2008
Pg. 1
Medical, intel and security are top concerns
By Stephen Losey
With thousands of wounded soldiers coming back from war each year, the Defense Department needs its doctors, nurses and other medical personnel more than ever.
But holding on to them is a challenge. Not only are many medical employees retiring along with the rest of the federal work force, the Pentagon has to deal with stiff competition from the private sector when trying to hire their replacements.
And it’s not just medical staffers. Some of Defense’s most crucial civilian employees — such as security and intelligence officials and human resources specialists — are also quickly leaving the department. Attrition rates for employees in all those categories range from 8.5 percent to 11.7 percent — well above the departmentwide rate of 7.9 percent, according to a recent Pentagon report.
“We need to pay attention to these mission-critical occupations,” said Patricia Bradshaw, deputy undersecretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy.
To stave off a serious staffing shortage in coming years, Bradshaw said the department is turning to a series of new hiring and work force flexibilities and improved internship and recruitment drives.
Medical understaffing
Bradshaw is most concerned about how future understaffing could cause Defense to fall short in meeting the medical needs of returning veterans.
But Defense received two powerful tools in this year’s authorization to help solve that problem: expanded powers to hire employees more quickly and to pay employees higher salaries.
Since the 1990s, Defense has been boosting the salaries of nurses, dentists and physicians to stay competitive with higher-paying private sector jobs. The new authorization allows Defense to pay them more, although the size of the increases will vary by location.
And Defense is now able to hire psychologists, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, licensed practical nurses and pharmacists without going through formal assessments, shaving up to five months fom the hiring process — longer than most prospective employees are willing to wait.
Defense was already able to hire dentists, nurses, podiatrists, optometrists, physician assistants and dental assistants without formal assessments.
“We are competing for people with skill sets that are in demand far beyond DoD, and we don’t produce a lot of those in this country,” Bradshaw said.
The Pentagon is trying to recruit more aggressively by placing job advertisements in various medical journals.
“We’ve never been good recruiters,” Bradshaw said. “We wait for people to knock on the door, and as a result, people don’t appreciate the jobs we have to offer.”
Security, other needs
The Pentagon is just starting to take a look at where its security forces need bolstering, and how to address those problems. Bradshaw said the department only realized that its police staffing was problematic when it started working on its human capital strategic plan in 2007.
But understanding the specifics of that community is proving tougher than expected, she said. Her office has reached out to the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, which oversees Pentagon police officers. But elsewhere, security is handled by local bases, and that makes it hard to assemble a broader picture of Defense’s security needs and possible solutions.
“That’s an area where we have more work to do,” Bradshaw said. “But the challenge is finding a single spokesperson for the community.”
Art Gordon, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said that higher salaries and better career tracks would help keep Defense’s police from looking elsewhere for jobs.
“A lot of uniformed officers in agencies leave because they want higher grades and more money, so they become criminal investigators,” Gordon said. “If you want to recruit new, younger people, they’ll look at the pay and benefits and career track. You’ve got to give them positions they’ll be able to move up into.”
In the intelligence field, joint-duty programs being enacted at Defense and other intelligence agencies could do a lot to retain young employees needed to replace retirees, said Tim Sample, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. Temporarily detailing those employees to other agencies will help keep them interested in federal service, Sample said. As a result, he said, they’ll be more likely to stay instead of going to higher-paying jobs in the private sector.
As for human resources professionals, Bradshaw said that Defense agencies might beef up internship programs.
“It seems they’re successful at getting the number of students they need now, so I don’t think we’ll have to do a huge ramp-up,” Bradshaw said. Human resources officials have annual attrition rates of 8.5 percent, the strategic plan said.
Retention efforts
Defense expects it will lose about 20,000 employees to retirement annually in the coming years, but Bradshaw said that’s about average and believes the department can maintain staffing. Over the last five years, the department lost an average of about 80,000 employees to retirements, other jobs or other separations annually, and hired an average of 79,000.
“We can cope,” Bradshaw said. “But we have to be more thoughtful about career planning, and we have to encourage people to stay.”
Defense is working with the Office of Personnel Management to find ways to expand flexibilities that will make employees more likely to delay retirement. Employees now tend to work two or three years after they become eligible to retire, Bradshaw said.
The Pentagon could increase teleworking opportunities, allow more employees to work part time as they get older, allow flexible work hours, or explore other ways to retain employees.
“How do we work with you if you live in West Virginia?” Bradshaw said. “Do you have to come into the office every day? All those things come into play.”
She said the department can learn from its engineering and acquisition communities, which have done a particularly good job of providing training and career advancement opportunities.
And Bradshaw expects a new retention incentive established by OPM in December will help it hold on to employees as the department closes offices and bases over the next two years. The incentive lets agencies pay bonuses of up to 50 percent of base pay when an office is being closed or relocated and a vital employee is likely to go to another federal agency in the meantime.
“That was our initiative,” Bradshaw said. “We went to OPM and said, we’re going to have a problem” with people leaving because of base closures.