Hiring just gets tougher

Study: Feds face competition for talented people

The federal government will be competing with the private sector to hire talented workers in the fields of security, public health, sciences, program management and business during the next two years, according to a new study.

The study by the Partnership for Public Service found that growth in the federal arena will be strongest in computer science, information technology, mathematics, health care and education. Funded by the New York Times Job Market, the report examines projected federal hiring needs by job category and compares those needs with private-sector demands.

Most noticeable is the influence of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on federal hiring plans. Highly skilled, knowledge-based fields are the most desperate for workers. And as a result of the recent intelligence reform law, the Homeland Security Department will need more border patrol agents and immigration and customs enforcement investigators.

Justice Department and DHS officials, in particular, are seeking more people with foreign language expertise. Bioterrorism concerns are fueling the push for new Agriculture Department food inspectors and biological scientists at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The report states that more than 37,000 new workers are needed for security, enforcement and compliance; public health is seeking nearly 26,000 new workers.

Specifically, the Transportation Security Administration will add 9,000 full- and part-time screeners in 2005, and the Coast Guard will bring on more staff for port security.

"I do believe the TSA, [like] the military, will always be recruiting," said Deirdre O'Sullivan, a TSA spokeswoman.

It will be difficult for federal agencies to achieve their hiring goals, according to the report. Increasingly, federal officials find themselves competing with the private sector for the best and brightest workers.

"The work of the government is changing and becoming more complex," the report states. "At the same time, demographic and economic trends are shrinking the pool of available talent. As a result, government agencies will increasingly find themselves competing with the private sector, as well as each other, for the same workers."

Kevin Simpson, executive vice president and general counsel for the partnership, highlighted the scope of federal hiring needs. "The government has significant challenges in front of it and a whole lot of work ahead to meet those challenges," he said.

Simpson said the terrorist attacks, retiring baby boomers and recent layoffs at some federal agencies are driving the job openings. "In the '90s, there was a great deal of downsizing, which created a lot of skill gaps inside the federal workforce," he added.

Federal officials have done a fairly good job, however, of hiring women, Simpson said. "As a whole, the government does better than the private sector as far as achieving a proportionate level of women in the workforce, particularly at the senior level," he said.

According to the report, the aging workforce presents a greater problem for the public sector than for the private sector. Nearly 60 percent of federal employees are older than 45, compared with 31 percent of the total labor force.

"An aging workforce means an increasing number of individuals become eligible to retire, taking with them valuable skills and institutional knowledge," the report states.

The comprehensive study, the first of its kind, is intended for federal audiences, as well as career counselors and people who are considering federal jobs.

The report recommends that lawmakers give agencies money for state-of-the-art recruitment materials to improve the image of professional government service.

Where the jobs are

Federal initiatives beyond fighting terrorism are contributing to an upsurge in openings in the federal job market.

Here are four of them:

* President Bush's new vision for the U.S. space program, which includes sending human explorers to Mars and building a base on the moon, means 938 new NASA engineers will be hired.

* As Internal Revenue Service officials increase enforcement of tax rules, the IRS will account for the majority of the 5,018 new accounting and budget posts expected to be created at the Treasury Department.

* The Department of Health and Human Services will need more health insurance specialists and claims and customer service representatives to implement the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act.

* The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will need 1,042 new patent examiners to catch up with a long-standing backlog.

— Aliya Sternstein

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