By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009
The federal government needs to hire more than 270,000 workers for "mission-critical" jobs over the next three years, a surge prompted in part by the large number of baby-boomer federal workers reaching retirement age, according to the results of a government-wide survey being released Thursday.
The numbers also reflect the Obama administration's intent to take on several enormous challenges, including the repair of the financial sector, fighting two wars, and addressing climate change.
"It has to win the war for talent in order to win the multiple wars it's fighting for the American people," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, the think tank that conducted the survey of 35 federal agencies, representing nearly 99 percent of the federal workforce.
Despite its comprehensive scope, the survey is necessarily imprecise about certain questions in looking so far into the future. The number of hires would be affected, for example, by federal workers deciding to delay their retirement, the government continuing to rely on private contractors to handle some of these jobs, and Congress balking at the price tag of adding new workers to the federal payroll.
Nevertheless, the survey makes clear that the majority of new hires will be needed in five broad fields -- medical, security, law enforcement, legal and administrative.
Mission-critical jobs are those positions identified by the agencies as being essential for carrying out their services. The study estimates that the federal government will need to hire nearly 600,000 people for all positions over President Obama's four years -- increasing the current workforce by nearly one-third.
The medical and public health area is most in need of hires, according to the study. Stier described the Department of Veterans Affairs as a "dramatic example" of an agency with pressing needs, as a result of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. VA, according to the report, will need more than 48,000 hires over the next three years, including 19,000 nurses and 8,500 physicians.
Intelligence agencies expect to hire 5,500 people in the next year and "in the same order of magnitude" over the following two years, according to Ronald P. Sanders, chief human capital officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Such agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
"It's a combination of how much turnover we expect and how much growth we expect in our budget," Sanders said.
The nation's unsettled economy and high unemployment rate may ease the government's task, as workers turn to the federal sector for job security and good benefits. But Stier said many federal agencies will have to fight to attract top talent, particularly in fields in which government cannot compete with private-sector salaries.
"Most are going to see extreme competition with the private sector," Stier said. This could be especially true in fields such as medical, legal and information technology, he said.
Yet federal hiring remains a cumbersome process for many agencies. "Fixing the hiring process is a key component in making it work," Stier said.
"Most government agencies have been historically passive, announcing jobs and waiting for people to line up," said Sanders, who served as associate director for policy for the Office of Personnel and Management before joining the national intelligence office.
But Sanders said Obama's vow to make government service "cool" and federal efforts to streamline the hiring process should leave the government in good stead to make the hires.
The Department of Homeland Security expects to hire for 65,730 positions by 2012, an increase of more than 48,000 from the previous three-year period.
The Justice Department is expecting 4,000 new positions among law enforcement personnel, correctional officers and attorneys in the 2010 budget, said Mari Barr Santangelo, chief human capital officer for the department.
But, federal officials said, the ultimate accuracy of the hiring projections will depend on whether current employees retire as predicted.
Despite the projected growth in federal jobs, the size of the government would be no larger than at most other times in the country's post-World War II history, both in relative and absolute terms.
In 1970, for example, the number of civilians on the federal payroll numbered 2,095,100, a figure that represented a little more than 1 percent of the U.S. population. In 2008, the comparable figure was 2,020,200, or 0.66 percent.
However, the figures do not reflect the enormous growth of the government contractor force as the result of privatization efforts pursued by previous administrations.
The Obama administration has signaled in its budget its intention to replace many contractors with government workers, particularly in the field of defense acquisition. This is another reason for the predicted surge in government hiring.
OPM Director John Berry was unavailable to comment on the report, according to a spokesperson.
The survey results are to be posted Thursday at http://www.wherethejobsare.org, according to the partnership.
Staff writers Joe Davidson and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.