Workforce challenges continue to hamper FDA


Lack of funding and substantial job stress have caused serious workforce challenges at the Food and Drug Administration, leaving the agency with significant gaps in scientific expertise, according to a new review by the Partnership for Public Service and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"The State of the FDA Workforce" report examined whether FDA has addressed the challenges outlined in a 2007 review that revealed funding shortfalls and intense work pressures had created recruiting and retaining challenges and skills gaps.

Since those 2007 findings, FDA has taken measures to fix the problems, the report states. However, major workforce and management challenges continue to plague the scientific and medical arenas. Those include:

  • Laborious recruting efforts: FDA's time-consuming hiring process often fails to deliver top talent, the report found. Recruting efforts are also often stalled by the poor quality of the human resources services provided by a centralized HR staff at FDA's parent agency, the Health and Human Services Department. One top FDA official said the agency often misses out on good candidates because "government has a timeline that isn't reasonable for people in the real world."
  • Insufficient training: The agency has not provided adequate training for new employees, helped them better understand their assignments, or encouraged professional development. There also is neither a plan to recruit executive talent from outside the agency nor an initiative to broaden current executives' managerial experience. Although a training and mentoring program was recently implemented, employees' workload "is so high that people often have to make a decision between more training and getting their work done," according to the report.
  • Lack of advancement opportunities: Employees were concerned about whether opportunities exist to advance their careers. "Scientists often are seen as 'lab people,' not leaders, and once employees reach a certain level, there are few chances to advance within the agency," the report stated. Those employees often resort to making lateral moves to gain knowledge and broaden their expertise. Citing data from a "Best Places to Work" report, the review also found that employees are concerned about being acknowledged for doing a good job and the lack of overall information they receive from management.
  • Dependency on temporary employees: More than one-fourth of FDA's workforce hold temporary positions for two to four years. While the practice does have some benefits – including an accelerated hiring process – the use of temporary employees leads to "disruptive turnover, lack of continuity and potential difficulty in meeting workload demands if jobs remain vacant for long periods," according to the report. The system also adds stress to HR staff and hiring managers, who must constantly find and bring in new employees.

The report suggests several remedies to fix these ongoing problems, including updating workforce plans and investing in career training and leadership development. FDA should also create metrics to measure the quality of new hires and make exit interviews mandatory, according to the report's recommendations.

About the Author

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


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