Critical Read

Defense, DHS, VA drive rise in federal employment

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WHAT: GAO Report on Recent Trends in Federal Civilian Employment and Compensation

WHY: It's no surprise that defense, border protection, and caring for wounded veterans are the priorities driving growth in government jobs. A report from the Government Accountability Office on civilian employment and compensation found that three departments – Veterans Affairs, Defense and Homeland Security – accounted for 94 percent of federal civilian job growth from 2004 to 2012. The GAO furnished the report at the request of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee.

Overall, the civilian workforce grew by 14 percent, from about 1.88 million in 2004 to 2.13 million 2012, an increase of more than 258,000 executive branch workers. Spending on pay and benefits remained flat when measured against the federal discretionary budget, according to the report, with personnel spending constituting about 14 percent of the budget, ticking up slightly in 2011 and 2012. At the same time, total compensation for federal workers grew from an average of $106,097 in 2004 to $116,828, with most of the increase being driven by rises in the cost of health care contributions. The increases can also be attributed to the rise in higher-paying administrative and professional jobs requiring special skills or advanced degrees. More than 90 percent of new career employees had at least a bachelor's degree, and more than 50 percent had a master's degree. By contrast, clerical and blue-collar jobs remained flat, and accounted for just 2 percent of the jobs added during the period covered in the GAO report.

Though overall the size of the federal workforce is growing, the number of permanent career employees is shrinking at many civilian agencies. The departments of Agriculture, Education, Treasury and Interior, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Administration, the Small Business Administration, the Social Security Administration and NASA saw permanent jobs diminish by 1 to 2 percent on an annual basis from 2004 to 2012.

The study also spotlighted the looming retirement wave facing government agencies. Currently about 270,000 members of the federal workforce are retirement-eligible, but by September 2017 that number is expected to climb to 600,000. "The government’s capacity to address these challenges could be undermined by a potential wave of employee retirements that could produce gaps in leadership and institutional knowledge," the report noted. According to a previous study by the Office of Personnel Management, retirement-eligible employees stick around in the jobs on average for about four years, with a quarter staying on for nine years or more. The report notes that IT management is among the least affected categories to be affected by a potential retirement wave. More worrisome for the GAO is the possibility of losses in the ranks of air traffic controllers.

VERBATIM: "Three agencies—DOD, DHS, and VA—accounted for 77 percent of the total government-wide increase in compensation from 2004 to 2012, largely due to increased hiring. DOD increased its spending on compensation by $19.9 billion (about 39 percent of the total increase), VA increased its spending by $10.5 billion (about 21 percent of the total increase), and DHS increased its spending by $8.8 billion (about 17 percent of the total increase)."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the About.com online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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Reader comments

Mon, Feb 3, 2014

I agree, remove the penalities and it can happen.

Fri, Jan 31, 2014

I'm not sure if the article is talking overall numbers, but if you're talking IT jobs they better look all the way back to 2004 if you want to include VA. With Warren in charge, there's been a little SES level hiring but IT hiring has been all but banned under his lack of leadership. My facility has lost seven people in the last two years and not one of them has been replaced. Perhaps that should be a focal point of another article.

Fri, Jan 31, 2014

The federal retirement systems are set up to essentially mandate workers staying until way past their prime. If the federal government wants younger, more agile, possibly more up-to-date employees, than the penalties for early retirement have to end.

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