Top Jobs in Government Increasingly Filled From Outside

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

For decades, the government has hired at lower grade levels and encouraged employees to work their way to the top. But a study released yesterday suggested that agencies are increasingly turning to job seekers from outside the government to fill upper-level jobs.

Many of the upper-level jobs filled by these outsiders were in occupations involving technology, homeland security and national defense -- all priorities of the government since 2000.

The majority of the people hired for upper-level positions had substantial work experience and, to some extent, might not be considered as true newcomers to government.

About one-third had worked for a federal contractor, and 16 percent had served in the military and Coast Guard. An additional 23 percent said they joined the government after working in the private sector.

The trend of hiring from outside the government for top positions is likely to continue, as more federal employees retire and as federal programs require expertise in new, complex fields and specialties, said the report prepared by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The board, which monitors the civil service and makes recommendations to the White House and Congress, conducted the study as part of an ongoing project to assess whether the government is as competitive as it should be in attracting and hiring highly skilled workers.

The board's study defined upper-level positions as grades 12 through 15 of the General Schedule, the top rungs of the government's largest pay and job classification system. The board reviewed data from 1990 to 2005 and surveyed a random sample of outsiders hired by Uncle Sam in fiscal 2005.

Of the 41,000 people brought in to the government at all GS levels in fiscal 2005, more than 12,000 were upper-level hires, the study found. That is 39 percent more than the 8,600 outsiders hired in fiscal 1990, the year before federal agencies underwent nearly a decade of post-Cold War downsizing.

The study did not look at the percentage of top federal jobs that are filled by people who already work in the government and are promoted to the upper levels. Estimates vary by agency and occupation, but, overall, 80 to 85 percent of upper-level jobs are filled from inside the government.

The board's study found that federal managers, probably more than in the past, consider applicants from outside government because they are committed to hiring the best qualified applicants and want to improve the quality of their workforce.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also have influenced hiring patterns.

The departments of Defense and Homeland Security have filled more upper-level jobs with new employees who are experts in security management, logistics and intelligence, the study said.

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