Bill targets workforce 'crisis'

College graduates either don't know about or aren't interested in federal government jobs. Mid-career professionals interested in joining government are often thwarted by a maze of confusing employment practices. And more than half of all current feds will be eligible for regular or early retirement by 2004.

Those factors add up to a federal government "human capital crisis," according to Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio). Legislation he introduced last week aims to give agencies new management tools to reverse the tide. In light of the recent terrorist attacks, a highly skilled and competent federal workforce to replace those about to leave is essential, he said.

"The future of our country really rests in our hands," Voinovich said.

The Federal Human Capital Act of 2001, unveiled last week at an event hosted by the newly formed Partnership for Public Service, is designed to enable agencies to recruit and retain skilled workers and better manage those already on board. Among the bill's highlights is the creation of a chief human capital officer position in major agencies to oversee management reforms and plan for future needs.

The bill doesn't address information technology specifically, but Voinovich acknowledged that a lack of IT workers is a major challenge. Federal salary schedules that aren't competitive with the private sector keep many potential IT workers away from government, he said.

However, given the poor state of the economy and layoffs in the technology sector, the government's ability to entice workers into federal service is better "now than ever before," Voino.vich said.

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, which aims to boost the prestige of government service, said the shortage of IT workers is a "critical" issue and one his organization will focus on.

"We want to make the IT issue one of our priorities," Stier said.

Voinovich's bill also aims to shorten the waiting period for some federal positions, and it features a number of other meas.ures, including:

* Improving employee accountability and streamlining reviews for poor performers.

* Allowing Senior Executive Service members to participate in private and nonprofit programs to enhance skills.

* Enabling agencies to set up training programs to groom employees for management positions.

* Amending the tax code to offer tax-free college loan repayment incentives.

Agencies need to do a better job of using technology to attract new hires, said Paul Light, vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution and a participant in last week's event. Specifically, agencies need to make full use of the Internet in their recruitment efforts, he said.

Voinovich agreed, saying that "we're just not using common sense and modern techniques in recruiting people."

Voinovich said he didn't expect his bill to pass the Senate before the end of the year, but parts of it could become law before then. Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) is introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

At the event, Morella said last month's terrorist attacks and the new Partnership for Public Service could spur a renewed interest in federal employment, which polls show had been "waning."

However, a new poll indicates otherwise (see box). According to Peter Hart, director of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 91 percent of those polled by his firm felt that the federal government functioned "very" or "fairly" well in the aftermath of the attacks. Despite that, only 18 percent said their interest in working for the federal government has increased, he said.

The conclusion: "There is no seminal change in the American public" toward civil service, Hart said.

However, Patricia McGinnis, president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government, noted that those between the ages of 18 and 29 are generally idealistic and more positive about government than their parents' generation.

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