How the hiring freeze targets millennials

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The federal civilian hiring freeze instituted by President Donald Trump is almost four weeks old. While there are numerous exceptions and carve-outs -- for national security and public health posts, and for certain trouble spots like the more than 35,000 vacant medical positions at the Department of Veterans Affairs -- the vast majority of government is affected.

The freeze is timed to last until the last week of April, at which point the new director of the Office of Management and Budget is supposed to have plan in place to reduce the workforce through attrition.

But a 90-day freeze with myriad exceptions is still going to damage the reputation of the federal government as an employer, according to workforce experts. One of the biggest hits will be felt among the cohort that government is so eager to target – millennial workers.

"The freeze is going to cause agencies to miss the spring 2017 graduates," said Jeffrey Neal, formerly chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security. Neal, now a senior vice president with ICF and a regular blogger on government human resources issues at, said, "the government is already having trouble finding young people, and the freeze is going to make it harder."

Data from the Office of Personnel Management bears this out. In 2010, a little over 10 percent of federal workers were under 30 years of age. That proportion has dropped steadily in recent years, ebbing at 6.4 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.

While the retirement wave predicted by some government HR pros never seems to crash, the federal workforce is aging, and young people aren't showing up for job openings.

The problem is especially stark in IT occupations, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. In IT, "there are three times as many people over the age of 60 as under 30," he said in a Feb. 13 appearance on C-SPAN. "The question is, is that what you want to freeze in place?"

Don Kettl, a professor and former dean in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said that, "millennials coming up, as best as I can tell, are discouraged by what they are seeing." He noted that for students studying government and policy, it isn't just the freeze, but the political climate in which the federal workforce is treated as "a stalking horse for ideological battles."

"We really do run the risk of losing a generation of workers," Kettl said.

Separate from the freeze, Kettl and Neal said, is the problem of reforming federal pay and job categorization.

"Almost nobody I know thinks the current system we have is a good idea," Kettl said. However, by casting the bureaucracy as a stand-in for big government, conservatives make it difficult to engage on workforce reform. "Public employee unions circle the wagons and fire back," he said. "It's a really nasty problem."

Neal said the issue of federal workforce reform suffers from oversimplification on all sides.

"People like to look at federal pay and treat it like it's simple," with partisans dividing over whether federal employees are overpaid or underpaid, he said. "The truth is that none of those are right. There are federal employees that are overpaid and those that are grossly underpaid. So trying to use this one-size-fits-none system – it doesn't work well and hasn't worked well for a long time."

Even before the freeze, workforce problems were preventing the government from addressing its most pressing problems, Kettl said. He led a study in 2016 that examined the programs on the high-risk list from the Government Accountability Office.

"Human capital issues are central at every one" of these problem programs, Kettl said. "We continue to put federal spending at risk. That's the core of our problem: We are drifting into a fierce ideological battle that is likely to frustrate our ability to do what needs to be done."

Stier sees the problem in similar terms. "There are all kinds of reasons why we should be doing government more effectively," he said. "A hiring freeze is not going to get us there."

He added: "For the workforce, the hiring freeze is kicking the can down the road and will make a bad problem worse."

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 roles 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 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

Tue, Feb 21, 2017 Cybersecurity in DC

While I agree that people are looking at federal pay too simply, there is also the fact that there are 2 separate and distinct work sectors and it doesn't do justice to either to continually compare them and say private sector is being paid less than public or vice versa when they have different operating modes, different missions and different purposes. Public sector should be looked at just by itself, and the same for private sector. A third grade teacher in San Francisco isn't making the same as a third grade teacher in Ottumwa Iowa even though they have the same job. There are factors that go into the difference in pay and it would be wrong to say the teacher in San Francisco is being paid too much. When private sector IT workers in the 90s were leaving their companies and getting venture capital to start new companies and commanding high salaries, I didn't hear anyone say those of us in the government were making too little and private sector companies needed to reign in the money.

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