Government Opens Drive to Offer New Hires Flexibility in Work Locations and Schedules

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The president's chief civil service adviser yesterday rolled out a new approach to hiring the next generation of federal workers, part of an effort to help agencies better compete for talent in the labor force as baby boomers leave the government.

Linda M. Springer , director of the Office of Personnel Management, launched a "career patterns" initiative aimed at making the government a more attractive employer by offering increased flexibility and better work-life balance to potential hires who are less interested in the traditional 9-to-5 job and 30-year federal career.

The initiative seeks to take many workplace practices in use across government -- telecommuting, nonstandard work hours, part-time work -- and treat them as natural employment options rather than as exceptions.

The OPM outlined several scenarios in a briefing book on the initiative. Agencies should consider it normal, the OPM said, to hire mid-career technology experts to spend a few years on a breakthrough project and then rotate them back into industry or the nonprofit sector. Or to hire employees to rule on benefit claims who would work from home at any hour of the day or night rather than let their lives be defined by rush-hour commutes to work at a desk in an office.

Springer said a retirement wave across government -- projections show that 40 percent of the federal workforce will retire by 2015 -- will pitch agencies into a war for talent with corporations, consulting firms and other employers.

The career patterns initiative, Springer said, represents "an entirely different approach and entirely different way of thinking about how we go out and market to an increasingly competitive marketplace for talent." She said: "We can't just necessarily go out and do things the way we did in the past. . . . Everybody else is going to be out there very aggressively with new techniques and new methods."

Springer convened a group of federal hiring officials for the launch of the OPM campaign and suggested that in the future, as many as half of the jobs in the government might be suitable for nontraditional work arrangements.

"We've got to be open to thinking about a wide range of arrangements," Springer told the group, which included Dan Blair , the OPM deputy director; Marta Brito PĂ©rez , an OPM associate director; George Nesterczuk , recently named by the president to be vice chairman of the Federal Salary Council, an advisory group on locality pay adjustments; and Max Stier , president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Officials from the Patent and Trademark Office, Interior Department and the OPM presented testimonials on how they have managed to reshape jobs to benefit the government and employees.

The PTO, for example, has 4,000 patent examiners and plans to hire 1,000 examiners this year to help reduce a backlog in patent applications, said Vickers B. Meadows , the chief administrative officer. In March, the agency started training examiners on how to work at home, an arrangement offered employees in the trademark division for several years.

About 220 examiners have given up their office space and are working at home four days a week, and officials expect the number working from home to increase to about 3,000 by 2011, Meadows said.

Lauren Ailes , a budget analyst at the PTO, said flexible working hours at the agency had permitted her and her husband to care for a newborn without having to turn to day care.

Springer said the initiative will require agencies to report by Jan. 1 on their workforces and what types of jobs could be recast to appeal to the next generation of federal employees.

Veto Threat on FAA Bill

Any legislation to change the rules for resolving contract disputes at the Federal Aviation Administration is strongly opposed at the White House, the administration said in a written statement. If Congress sends such a bill to the president, senior advisers will recommend a veto, the statement said.

The FAA on Monday, after a 60-day review period ended with no action by Congress, imposed a contract that would limit pay raises for air traffic controllers. A House bill sponsored by Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) would set aside the statutory deadline and send the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association back to the bargaining table.

"Legislative intervention now could increase the pay of federal workers who are already on average the highest paid in government, increase pressure on the deficit, and displace funding for modernization of the air traffic control system," the administration said.

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