Harder times ahead for federal HR leaders

Tougher times are ahead for federal human resources leaders, but don’t expect many of them to throw in the towel just yet.

The Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton interviewed 55 chief human capital officers to assess their opinions as hiring managers amid an uncertain economy and political transition. The findings showed that in facing increasing challenges, HR leaders have had to become more resourceful than ever in recruiting and retention.

The rate of change within the federal government is expanding beyond the operational challenges and tightening budgets to those expected to deal with the issues. More than half of the 53 CHCOs and HR leaders interviewed five years ago by the partnership have since left government. Additionally, most of the CHCOs who sit on the CHCO Council have been in that position for less than two years.

Added to the laundry list of challenges is the expected turnover as many baby boomers are retiring. While HR leaders were determined to address these challenges, they said they realized success wasn’t a given. However, most HR leaders believe that the impending political transition and the long-term reality of tight budgets may serve up opportunities to transform parts of the federal civil service system.

The severity of the workforce challenges and the level of preparedness vary across agencies, but a general consensus emerged regarding several issues:

Competition for talent is increasing: Those interviewed agreed the government needs to beef up its efforts in finding skilled candidates, especially in mission-critical occupations. Science, technology, engineering, math and medical fields in particular have experienced difficulties in attracting and recruiting top talent. “But negative perceptions about government and its workers, changing expectations of younger employees and outdated HR systems can impede recruitment and retention,” the report stated.

Government HR policies need updating: The federal pay system, performance management and HR IT systems and standards were areas interviewees found particularly inefficient or outdated and in most need of a makeover. For example, the General Schedule pay system was deemed “woefully inadequate;” however, most HR leaders acknowledged that changing the federal pay structure is only half the battle. “Agency cultures would need to change and managers would have to learn how to operate under a new system,” the report said.

OPM and OMB don’t understand agencies’ unique needs. CHCOs depend on the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for guidance and regulation on HR and fiscal management. CHCOs were generally pleased with duo, but said both need more employees below the leadership level with agency experience that enables them to understand agency needs and challenges.

These obstacles notwithstanding, CHCOs are showing resilience and aren’t giving up, the report noted.

“We found that despite the bumpy road, CHCOs remain committed to helping their agencies carry out missions  focused on helping their agencies carry out their missions with the current workforce while working to hire the best new employees they can, and are committed to ensuring that the government’s human capital needs are met,” the report said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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