NFFE's Dougan on shutdowns, IT hiring

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The National Federation of Federal Employees’ Bill Dougan

Although the government has its "open" sign on display after October's partial shutdown, its "gone fishing" sign remains within reach as the potential for a repeat performance looms in January.

Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, is among those who are not optimistic about the prospects for a peaceful settlement of the budget and appropriations problems before the end of the year.

He recently spoke with FCW's Reid Davenport about past and future shutdowns and other issues that affect the federation's 110,000 members, including hiring and retaining IT employees.

FCW: Are there any lessons to be learned from the October shutdown?

In general, [the Office of Management and Budget] and [the Office of Personnel Management] did a pretty good job of communicating ahead of the shutdown with labor. We were having fairly regular conference calls with OMB and OPM to keep us updated on the situation and the likelihood of the shutdown and all that. So that was good, and I think one of the lessons learned was that when these kinds of situations are looming, communication is vital.

Another lesson was, with respect to our employees and our members being able to take other jobs or to work part-time during the shutdown, there was some information out there that OPM had, but it really wasn't communicated all that well. We got a lot of questions about that -- can I take a job or am I free to do this or do I need to run it by my supervisor? -- and I think [we needed] a little more clarity and a little more completeness on those kinds of questions because a lot of these folks are living paycheck to paycheck.

FCW: Have you talked with OPM about the need for more clarity regarding moonlighting during a shutdown?

I've had some general conversations with them. I'm trying to get a meeting with the new director. That'll be one of the things that I'd like to talk to her about. I think it would be good for them to go through all of that type of information that they have listed on their website just to ensure that it's up-to-date, that it's complete, that it's understandable because once there is a shutdown, it becomes very difficult for us to find anybody in the government.

FCW: Some agencies require their employees to get any outside employment approved, but the people who would regularly approve those jobs were on furlough.

That's exactly the problem. It's the same problem that I, as a president of a union, would have once there is a shutdown. It's going to be very difficult for me to talk with anybody in any agency because most of the employees are on furlough. The alternative that we can do and that we are starting to communicate to our membership is, look, should we ever have these kinds of situations in the future, it might be good for you if you have an interest or a need in seeking other employment during a shutdown or furloughs, just go ahead and have those conversations right now while you're still employed. Get those agreements in place and then you don't have to worry about chasing people down once there is a shutdown.

FCW: Other than short-term unemployment, what are your major concerns about another shutdown?

Right now, if I'm a betting man, I would bet that there will be another shutdown in January, and the reason I say that is because this congressional group that was put together to try to come up with some sort of a budget package between now and Jan. 1, there's just not enough days. When you figure in the holidays and their normal work schedule anyway, these people only work [about] three days a week to begin with. They're just not going to be able to accomplish anything.

I think it's fairly clear that the gap and the divide between the Republicans and the Democrats in that work committee is so great that for us to expect them to come out with some grand bargain or maybe even something as small as another continuing resolution, I am very pessimistic about that. I think the second question is, given that both sides know what the public reaction was to this last shutdown, I don't know in the end whether either side really gives a damn about getting a deal done and, if they don't, whether we shut down the government and for how long.

FCW: If there is another shutdown, do you see it having a negative effect on the overall image of government employment and the desire of current employees or anyone else to work for the federal government?

Absolutely. I think you're seeing that right now. We have a lot of young members in our locals, and in talking with many of those folks, many of them are actually starting to put their resumes out into the private sector, having gone through this furlough. They're just not willing to have to go through all the turmoil and the uproar and the stress of not knowing whether their agency is going to have the money to fund them so that they can get a paycheck for the work that they're doing.

FCW: Do you think the federal government could have a recruiting crisis and not be able to fill vacancies?

They have a recruiting crisis right now, for a variety of reasons. Certainly the shutdown exacerbated the problem, but in most of the federal agencies, their budgets have been either on a decline or at best flat for a number of years. One of the tactics that many of the leaders of these agencies have chosen has been to either put hiring freezes on or to severely limit the number of new hires that they will bring in as a result of vacancies coming open.

The other issue is an issue of pay, and we see that with some of the hard-to-fill jobs and the hard-to-hang-onto jobs. And the kinds of jobs that I'm talking about…are jobs related to cybersecurity, IT specialist-type positions. Those are very hard jobs to get qualified people to apply for. The nature of the pay system is such that these people can't be paid relative or comparable to the private sector for the kind of work that they're doing for the federal government.

Even if those jobs are able to be filled within agencies like [the Defense Department] or [the National Security Agency] or the other agencies where cybersecurity is a big deal, we're seeing a lot of those people not stay in the government very long and move back out into the private sector where the salaries are much higher. These people are basically losing between 40 and 50 percent of their potential salary by taking a job in the federal sector versus private sector.

FCW: How does the government begin addressing the shortage of IT professionals?

They're going to have to be creative in terms of using hiring authorities, for example. I had a federal career, and one of the programs that were big when I first started back in the '70s was what we call the co-op program. Federal agencies would actually go out to college campuses, attend job and hiring fairs, and look for people who were in majors or programs of study that would lead them, once they got their degrees, to be eligible for positions that I needed to fill in my agency.

I could actually offer those folks essentially an employment agreement while they were still in school that allowed the government to help pay for their tuition and books. Then, when they got their degree, they would be given a job in the agency that had recruited them.

About the Author

Reid Davenport is a former FCW editorial fellow. Connect with him on Twitter: @ReidDavenport.


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