As new executives come to Washington at the end of the Obama Administration and the start of the next Administration, they will need to pay special attention to what we have termed the “tenured workforce.” We are defining the tenured workforce as individuals with 10-24 years of federal experience. This group comprises 32% of the estimated 2 million federal employees. Approximately 18% hold supervisory positions. Individuals in this group are likely to have “grown up” in the ranks of government, or may have joined the government from private industry, later in their careers. This group is crucial to making government work and to your success as a political executive.
Based on a seminar recently conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration and Ernst & Young, we found that there are two key questions that political executives should ask about the tenure workforce:
- What are the most crucial mission-critical skills gaps in your organization?
- What are creative strategies and solutions that you can apply to specifically address the tenured workforce?
Question One: What are the most crucial mission-critical skills gaps in your organization?
Because of their deep technical skills, individuals within the tenured workforce are highly sought after, impacting both recruitment and retention efforts. In mission support areas, such as cyber-security, information technology, acquisition, financial management, or human capital, their skills are transferable across government and in many cases, across the private sector. Competition for these highly sought after skills exacerbates the skills gap and can have a serious programmatic impact if those competencies are lost.
The capabilities that the tenured workforce possesses take years to acquire and hone. Skills are developed on the job through multiple iterations of the work. These are often not skills or competencies that can be readily learned and applied after a training session. Rather, they are borne from experience. You will need to make sure that your agency has both a recruitment strategy to attract new skills and a retention plan to keep key current tenured workforce.
In addition to assessing the skills gaps of the tenured workforce, political executives also need to address the challenge of the “reluctant manager.” Moving into the ranks of management is a natural career progression, leading to higher remuneration and grade levels. For many in the tenured workforce, management may not be an aspiration or a core competency. However, to advance in their careers and/or by virtue of their experience and knowledge, these seasoned employees are often placed in management positions for which they are not prepared. The likely outcome is that the individuals supervised or managed by the tenured employee may not be adequately coached and developed. Similarly, the tenured employee’s development is also stifled and their engagement potentially diminished as they are unable to advance in the direction that is truly suited to their capabilities and preferences. Thus, this “mismatch” not only subjects the agency to attrition risk, but also places workforce development and succession planning efforts at risk.
Without your attention, these human capital challenges may impact your organization’s current and future operations and overall mission effectiveness.
Question Two: What are creative strategies and solutions that can be applied to the tenured workforce?
Agency leaders seeking to respond to the challenge of tenured workforce can rely on tried and tested management principles. Strategies include:
- Finding ways to reinforce and reward technical acumen through channels other than the supervisory career path.
- Maximizing and enriching the contribution of the tenured workforce by placing these individuals on new, interesting and challenging assignments that can truly leverage the skills they have developed over the years.
- Drawing on the experience of the tenured workforce to solve critical and complex challenges facing the federal government. You can incorporate them onto “Tiger Teams” and Task forces.
- Building on their professional passion by engaging them as mentors to less experienced and incoming staff and in so doing build the next generation of skilled federal workers.
- Filling skills gaps and simultaneously providing technical growth opportunities through inter- and intra-agency rotational assignments.
If you are address the mission critical skills gap inherent in the federal government, then you must include the tenured workforce in your assessment. The skills and experience of this important group of employees are critical to solving the complex changes and challenges that agencies face. Their knowledge and capabilities are the foundation of the growth and development of the next generation of successful federal employees. Their contributions are integral to the effectiveness of our government’s critical mission and ongoing success. They cannot be ignored.