Are you ready for the "blended workforce"? Or for the "core-ring" staffing model?

Two University of Illinois-Chicago professors think it's time for the government to reconsider its workforce policies and seriously look at hiring temporary workers as a way to help offset the exodus of baby boomers and to help control payroll costs.

In their report, James R. Thompson and Sharon H. Mastracci point out that federal personnel practices and policies are "in a period of profound change" but that Congress and federal agencies have paid little attention to "nonstandard work arrangements," such as part time, on call and other temporary staffing methods.

Most federal agencies will make the replacement of retiring baby boomers a priority for the next five to 15 years and, Thompson and Mastracci believe, will need to know how to expand their pool of potential recruits by offering work schedules that are attractive to students, retirees and people who need to devote time to family responsibilities.

"The whole area of alternative work arrangements is substantially unexplored, or at least under explored as a means of developing a more flexible workforce," the two write.

In their report, "The Blended Workforce: Maximizing Agility Through Nonstandard Work Arrangements," sponsored by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, the professors review staffing approaches tried by a dozen agencies. (The report is available at www.businessofgovernment.org.)

Noting that 90 percent of federal employees are in full-time, permanent positions, the authors contend the government should pay more attention to creating a blended workforce, which can include part-time, on-call, seasonal, intermittent workers and independent contractors. It also includes temporary employees and contract company workers.

The reliance on mostly full-time workers impedes flexibility, especially in times of budget cuts or when there's a steep demand for services, the professors write.

Traditional staffing can mean turmoil when layoffs are required and provides little surge capacity for emergencies or critical events, they say.

Thompson and Mastracci think the "core-ring" model, used by some companies, holds promise in the federal sector and recommend that the Office of Personnel Management set up a project to test the concept. In this model, the core is made up of employees who work full time and in permanent jobs, and the ring consists of employees in contingent or alternative arrangements, such as workers brought in under contract with an outside staffing company.

The report discusses how the core-ring approach has helped the Naval Research Lab create a blended workforce (40 percent of the staff was on contract in 2004), how the Transportation Security Administration turned to part-time employees when faced with a downsizing order from Congress, and how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has made use of temporary and limited-term employees.

To be sure, operating with a blended workforce raises questions about fair treatment of employees who are not in full-time positions, including how to provide benefits to part-timers, and where to draw the legal lines, the report says.

In particular, agencies must avoid violating rules that prohibit personal services contracts -- cases in which contract employees are subject to continuous control by a government employee.

Thompson and Mastracci urge OPM to review some of its policies that may hinder agencies from creating more flexible workforces. For example, the authors note, temporary employees working 2,079 hours per year are not eligible for health benefits, but those working 2,081 hours are, although they must pay the full cost themselves.

Thompson and Mastracci also urge OPM to support pension policy changes that permit phased retirements and relief from pension offsets that reduce salaries by the amount of an annuity payment. Such changes, they argue, make sense and will make it easier for agencies to hang on to experienced hands or bring them back when faced with labor shortages.

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E-mail: barrs@washpost.com