It's been two years since an unarmed man, 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar, was shot and killed by police in Fairfax County. Kojo sits down with Bijan's family to discuss their quest for answers.
The Washington region has a unique relationship with the federal government. It’s a relationship that also shapes the lives of the many people who don’t work directly for the federal government. We explore what 2012 will bring to the federal workforce.
- Max Stier President and CEO, Partnership for Public Service
- Lily Whiteman Federal employee; "Careers Columnist" for the Federal Times; author, "How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job:" (Amacom Books)
- Joe Davidson Columnist, the Federal Diary, for the Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Welcome to our first show for 2012, and a Happy New Year to all of you. It was a fitting end to a strange year for federal workers. Days before the New Year, the House voted to freeze federal pay for a third straight year as part of a final round of brinkmanship over payroll taxes.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat provision didn't quite make it into law, but it will almost certainly surface again in the New Year. For many federal workers, 2011 felt like the year of the piñata. In fact, if you listen to some of the partisan rhetoric, you'd think Joe Fed caused the great recession with his cushy pay and gold-plated benefits. So what should we expect for 2012? Dark clouds remain on the horizon. But the government is still hiring, and federal workers are still doing innovative work, grappling with cutting-edge public policy.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss all of this is Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Max, good to see you again. Happy New Year.
MR. MAX STIERThank you for having me, and Happy New Year to you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Lily Whiteman. She's a federal employee and the careers columnist for the Federal Times, author of "How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job." Lily Whiteman, thank you for joining us. Happy New Year to you.
MS. LILY WHITEMANHappy New Year to you, too.
NNAMDIJoe Davidson is the "Federal Diary" columnist for The Washington Post and a neighbor who I definitely don't see enough of. So, Joe, Happy New Year to you.
MR. JOE DAVIDSONI have to come on your show to say Happy New Year to you, Kojo.
NNAMDII swear it's ridiculous. 800-433-8850 is the number you can call. Are you a federal worker or government contractor? How has the uncertainty of the last year affected your workplace and your career choices? Call us at 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there.
NNAMDIJoe, Capitol Hill usually becomes a ghost town in the weeks leading up to the holidays, but, this year, Democrats and Republicans were engaged in a standoff over payroll taxes and budgets that ran up to the brink of the holiday. Right now, we've got a temporary two-month extension of the tax cut. But when House and Senate leaders sit down to try to hammer out a compromise in the coming weeks, federal pay will be on the chopping block, won't it?
DAVIDSONYeah. That's right because the House passed a one-year extension to the two-year federal pay freeze. It's a pay freeze on base federal pay. And that's in the House legislation, as I've mentioned, not in the Senate legislation. And so when the House and Senate try to decide how to work out their differences -- and their differences are significant in this piece of legislation or these two bills and what we call a conference committee -- then the issue of federal pay being frozen for another year will certainly be on the table.
DAVIDSONIt's too early to say what will come out of that. It is safe to say, however, that Democrats in the Senate and that Democrats in the House, too, for that matter, very much oppose this extension, at least many, if not most of them. Some of them, I think, would go along with it, but there is a significant -- there are a significant number of Democrats who would oppose this extension. So we have to wait and see what comes of this conference committee.
NNAMDI2011 was a year of pay freezes, budget cuts and threats of government shutdowns. As you guys look into your crystal ball for 2012, what do you see for federal workers? I'll start with you, Max.
STIERChallenging days. All the larger dynamics, in terms of greater demand on government services and very tight financial circumstances, are only going to be worse in 2012. And you add on top of that the political screen and drama, and it doesn't look good. I think the real question is going to be, can we move beyond the sort of heated rhetoric and look towards solutions? And my guess is that's going to be hard to do in the political season. But my hope is that something unexpected happens.
NNAMDILily Whitehead? (sic) Whiteman, I should say.
WHITEMANI answer to anything. It's fine.
NNAMDII got the Lily right.
WHITEMANI think that, in terms of federal hiring, there are still going to be some great opportunities because the long-awaited retirement wave is surging. This year, 25 percent more Feds retired than previous years. And it's hit record levels of over 100,000 Feds hiring -- sorry, retiring last year, and each retirement creates new opportunities for several people down the food chain. So even though there are some grim things happening, in terms of job opportunities, there will still be many, many -- and also to -- I should say that the federal government is the nation's largest employer.
WHITEMANSo there's always going to be lots of opportunities.
NNAMDIJoe, the fact that this is a political year, does that, in a way, especially a presidential election year, muddy the waters, if you will, for federal employees by making it really, really difficult to predict what's likely to happen?
DAVIDSONWell, you certainly have some rhetoric coming from some of the candidates, which you kind of -- you have to add to the mix. At the same time, it's also accurate to say that a number of presidential candidates or Republican hopefuls have paid basically no attention to federal employees. You have comments, though, like Rick Perry saying that if federal employees don't implement his policies, he would send them to "a God-awful place."
DAVIDSONAnd so that kind of shows you where he's coming from. Mitt Romney had an op-ed in USA Today in November in which he talked about reducing the federal workforce through attrition -- and many other people have also talked about that -- and bringing federal salaries in line with the public sector -- I mean, with the private sector, which, if you look at Bureau Labor data...
NNAMDIYeah, we'll get to that in a second.
DAVIDSON...it indicates that federal -- that wages would rise, like, by more than 25 percent. But, of course, that's not what Romney meant. So I think the dynamic of this political year, there is a lot of drama in it, as Max referred to, and I think that influences the way -- that influences the rhetoric around federal employees. And the rhetoric on Capitol Hill has already been high. And so it doesn't seem to me that it is going to -- it's not going to affect the rhetoric in a positive sense, I think, for federal employees.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about the future of the federal workforce in this political presidential election year and inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to email@example.com. Max, the partnership for public service is a nonpartisan organization, and, indeed, support for federal workers is a nonpartisan issue in this part of the country. But on a national level, it seems like it's impossible to stay above partisanship if you're championing government. Does that alarm you?
STIERIt does, unfortunately, in two different ways. The one, I think, that running the government down and running the federal workforce down has been bipartisan support, and that's a real challenge. I think this administration has a lot more that it could do to build a stronger workforce and a stronger government. And, frankly, you know, the president has even himself has yet to even meet with the senior executives, the top career executives across government.
STIERTo me, that's a real mistake. On the same hand, I think that, when you look at a lot of the polling data, I think, there's just not a lot of understanding about what the federal workforce is doing for the American people. And when you have that understanding, I think you do see that more bipartisan support. And, frankly, at core, you know, our federal workforce is about solving our collective problems.
STIERThere's certainly a lot of issues that we legitimately have with our government, but the response can't be to tear down the workforce in the government. It's got to be to figure out how to fix it. And I think that is the basis for a bipartisan consensus.
NNAMDITomorrow is the Iowa caucuses, and, for many Republicans, as Joe Davidson was pointing out, beating up on Washington and the federal government, and by extension on the federal worker, is red meat for their base. But it hasn't always been this way. How did it come to this?
DAVIDSONWell, from my perspective -- and I'm sure my colleagues...
NNAMDIYeah. I'm sure you all have responses to this.
DAVIDSON...have good insight into this -- one of the things that, you know, that I heard when I took over this beat, when I started writing the "Federal Diary" column about two-and-a-half years ago, many people referred to Ronald Reagan's comment about how things are broken in Washington and there's too much government in Washington. And, clearly, Ronald Reagan is, in many ways, the guiding light for conservatives, for today's conservatives.
DAVIDSONAnd so it seems like many people certainly point to the Reagan administration as a point at which this feeling about federal employees really kind of accelerate, in a sense. And, I think, clearly, in the last couple of years, the rhetoric on Capitol Hill, and legislative proposals in particular from the Republican side of the Congress have -- they've really gone after federal employees with any number of proposals, most of which, by the way, have not passed.
WHITEMANAnother point I'd like to bring up, that I haven't seen discussed anywhere, is that almost 30 percent of Feds who are currently being hired are veterans. So when you scapegoat federal employees, you're also scapegoating veterans, which is a terrible thing. And I think that -- also going back to the Reagan administration, as Joe mentioned, they started a shell game where, in order to make it look like the government shrank, they contracted out a lot of government work.
WHITEMANSo the numbers of the government were smaller, but the amount of money actually being paid -- used by the federal government was larger. And I see that all the time now as well.
STIERAgain, back to the bipartisan sport notion, you know, President Carter ran against Washington. And this really has been, unfortunately, I think, a post- Watergate phenomenon, but one that, I think, is larger issue for us. And that is that the public has very little faith in any institution, and, really, I think -- and you look again at the polling -- no distinction is made between the political leadership and the career workforce.
STIERFor most folks, when you say government worker, they say Congress or the president. And you're looking at, you know, institution Congress on the Republican side with a 12 percent approval rating. So I believe that the government has become an insulated and isolated organization, disconnected from the rest of society. Its impact is not communicated well to the public, and we have to change that if we expect the public to understand that they are actually hurting themselves by running down the federal workforce.
NNAMDIAnd this is a question that a lot of people seem to want to know. Joe Davidson brought it up earlier. Are federal workers overpaid or underpaid? Mitt Romney has said he can save the federal government more than $40 billion a year by cutting federal pay, citing a Heritage Foundation study that claims Feds are overpaid by roughly 30 or 40 percent. Then again, Joe mentioned the BLS. The Bureau of Labor Statistics actually sees the opposite problem, that Feds are underpaid by 20 percent. I'll add to that the voice of Bill in Washington, D.C. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLKojo, thanks for taking my call. I'm a federal worker in Washington, D.C. I work in computer security. And I wanted to mention that -- about the studies we see, most workers are paid in the security arena more than we are by at least 50 percent, if not twice as much. And we also are contracting out all the technical jobs in computer security instead of having them in-house. And we often pay easily two or three times as much as any federal worker would be paid for technical skills.
BILLThe other thing is that, quite often, in the federal government, you're brought in at a certain level. And you're elevated to be managing groups of individuals, including technicians, computer technicians, so you lose your technical edge. But you're pushed into that, managing geeks instead of being one yourself. So the other is, I had a concern about the fact that people were assuming that all federal workers can be -- all our jobs can be done by the states instead of in a federal arena. And I worked in the aviation industry, and I'm unsure how everyone is proposing to do that on a statewide level.
NNAMDIBill, you raise a number of concerns. I'll start with Lily Whiteman. Pick whichever one of those concerns you'd like to address.
WHITEMANWell, in terms of the salary comparisons between the private and the public sector, the studies that come in showing that federal workers are grotesquely overpaid usually come from the right wing. So it is a very political -- politicized issue. And the studies that come in showing that Feds are vastly overpaid exclude the fact that the federal workforce is generally more white-collar employees, fewer blue-collar employees than the private sector, more educated and older with more seniority and experience.
WHITEMANSo they're -- the studies that are politicizing the federal salaries are really not comparing apples to apples.
NNAMDIAnd, Max Stier, we've got an email from Beth who says, "I'm not a federal employee, and I have a question about federal pay. The GOP claims federal workers make more than their counterparts in the private sector. Is this true? If it is true, it might be the result of privatization of lower end federal jobs, which results in a higher skewed average pay scale." Could that be the explanation?
STIERWell, it's an interesting observation. Steve Pearlstein did a nice column this weekend talking a little bit about the -- you know, the disaggregating, looking at the upper-end, high professionals versus the lower paid, more blue collar. The fact of the matter is I don't think anyone really knows. We have a broken system. We have a pay system that was created in 1949 when the world was very, very different. And I think we're having the wrong conversation about whether Feds are paid too much or too little. What is clear is we don't have a market sensitive system.
STIERWe need a market sensitive system so that we can get the best talent to do the job right at the best price. And, until we have that, we're going to have a debate that is ideological and political rather than functional about how to make our government better. So, I think, you know, there's data on all sides. But at the end of the day, if you're comparing both workforces, it's kind of, frankly, a little bit of a silly exercise.
STIER(unintelligible) saw, you know, Bill Gates walking into the bar with 20 other people and then (unintelligible) he becomes, on average, a billionaire, doesn't really tell you a whole lot. And what you really got to look at is, are we paying the -- for the right talent and the right geography with the right experience, not more nor less than we need to get the right person?
WHITEMANAnd going back to the pay freeze, the factor that's really considered is that the effects of the pay freeze are accumulative over the lifetime of a career. You're not just losing one year's pay increase, but all future pay increases will be based on a lower pay. And the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers created a federal pay freeze calculator, which is on the Internet -- you can Google for it -- where any Fed can put in their salary and come up with how much they'll lose over the course of their career and in their retirement.
WHITEMANAnd, just as an example, an employee making $70,000 will lose about $66,000 over 20 years.
NNAMDIHere's the other side of that coin -- and, Bill, thank you very much for you call. Joe Davidson, I don't know how often you hear from people like our emailer, Nicholas, who says, "I'm a federal worker working for the Department of State. I'd rather not give my full name for fear of the displeasure of my colleagues. However, I think federal workers should have a temporary, across-the-board pay cut. One of the most valuable characteristics of our federal job is our job security, something not enjoyed in the private sector or even in the state and local government sector as of late.
NNAMDI"This job security component, in my opinion, carried a substantial value in time -- in a time of weak labor markets. Accordingly, simply comparing our salary to salaries in the private sector without taking into account the indirect value of our job security is like comparing the aforementioned apples and oranges. Federal workers need to share the incredible sacrifice made by workers in other sectors by a temporary pay reduction."
NNAMDIThere seems to be a significant amount of, if not necessarily resentment, certainly consideration that the security offered to federal workers is greater than that to workers in the private sector. And therefore, federal worker should be making some other kind of sacrifice.
DAVIDSONWell, it's true that federal workers do have security, although it's also true that federal workers are fired, not necessarily in great numbers. But it does happen. It's not as if you're guaranteed a position for life. The federal pay freeze has been in effect now -- this is going into its second year. And that, by the way, was done by, you know, a Democrat, as opposed to a Republican. It wasn't done by -- well, it was confirmed, essentially, by a legislation but proposed by the president.
DAVIDSONAnd so you certainly can -- I think an economist could look at a pay freeze as the equivalent of a pay cut in terms of your real wage, whether it's going up or down or not. Taking money away from -- literally take a literal pay cut, well, I don't know of any Republicans who are proposing that. And I'm sure that the federal employees would howl, just as any of us would howl, if our employer is out to cut our pay.
DAVIDSONBut also, in terms of the federal workforce, the federal workforce and all of these agencies practically are going through buy-outs and early retirements, early out, trying to reduce their budgets by encouraging people to leave. I don't think any of them have had that reduction in force or layoffs yet, although I wouldn't be surprised to see that happening this year.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the future of the federal workforce and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIThe federal workforce in the year 2012 is what we're talking about with Lily Whiteman. She's a federal employee and the careers columnist for the Federal Times. She's author of "How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job." Joe Davidson is a columnist. He's the Federal Diary columnist for The Washington Post. And Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. I'll start with Michael in Washington, D.C. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHey, thank you very much for taking my call. I work for the National Parks here in D.C., now at the Jefferson Memorial. And this is my fourth park. I just came from Olympic in Washington, Everglades and Lincoln. And one of the things I want to point out is that I have no job security. I have a designated contract prior to this job. It was a six-month. Here, I have one-year assignment here in D.C.
MICHAELI can be renewed, or I may just be unemployed. And in the process, I do not get any benefits. I don't get any health insurance as well. And many of the people I worked with have their master's degrees, and most of us are averaging about $15 an hour. So I love the National Parks, and I love my job. Some of the myths about job security, that we're overpaid, are really just that -- they are myths.
STIERLook, I -- and this is the bottom line point. It's a big workforce. To treat it the same is a huge mistake. We heard from a computer security person, Bill. That's a, you know, a talent market where it's very, very hard to find great people, and you have to pay more. We ought to be having a system that is really market sensitive. When you need computer security talent, you may need to pay more, and we don't have that right now.
STIERWe have a system, again, that was put in place in 1949 when people stayed in the same job forever, and there weren't market surveys done in order to make sure that you were, in fact, paying the competitive rate that you needed to. We have to redo not just our compensation, but our civil service system in general. It is not keeping up with the world that we live in right now, and you get all kinds of problems like the one they're describing here.
STIERPart of that -- if we're going to ever win the larger debate with the American public about the value of public service, we have to be able to demonstrate that there is a sensible system behind. And, right now, we don't have it.
NNAMDILily, let's talk about actually finding a job in the federal government. Even though we're in the midst of budget cuts and rhetoric about cutting down the size of government agencies, the federal government is still hiring. Where are the jobs? Where are the major growth areas?
WHITEMANThe major growth areas are the agencies that deal with war and intelligence, the intelligence community, homeland security. These kind of agencies have been responsible for most of the recent increase in government. Nevertheless, there's hiring going on all over the country and in all agencies, so...
NNAMDIMax, every year, the Partnership for Public Service releases a list of the best and worst places to work. What agencies seem to be getting this right?
STIERIt -- yeah, people can go to bestplacestowork.org, and they can get the listing of the agencies, both large and small and sub-components. But there are agencies like the FDIC, which are clearly getting it right. They are number one this year in our best places to work rankings. What's fascinating is that they were close to the bottom about five years ago. And they made a conservative effort to turn things around, and they succeeded.
STIERThe same when they were close to the bottom, the SEC was close to the top. Today, the SEC is close to the bottom, and so it really goes to show, at the end of the day, that great leadership and real focus on creating a productive environment in a workplace makes a big difference. And that's what we need to see across the board.
NNAMDIOne of the legendary complaints has always been that the process is too complex. Listings are spread out over a bunch of different agencies and websites. Applications go in. They somehow seem to disappear. You wait for six months to hear back from them. This was all supposed to change with a new updated USAJobs site. But the launch of USAJobs went somewhat awry, Joe. What happened?
DAVIDSONWell, that's true. When the -- it was -- when the Office of Personnel Management took over operation of the USAJobs site from a private company, Monster, it -- for the first short period of time, there was some serious problems with that -- with the re-launch, you might say, of USAJobs, enough so that there were congressional hearings on it. I should say, though, that, overall, there has been -- the Bush administration and the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry really have made a concerted effort to implement hire and reform, not withstanding this problem with USAJobs.
DAVIDSONAnd they've replaced the system of SAs known as KSAs, where candidates had to write about their knowledge, skills and abilities with a resume-based application process. The number of days to hire is coming down. I think it's still too high, but it is coming down. And so, I think, there definitely have been some positive changes in the hiring reform process, even though they -- this recent controversy with USAJobs definitely was an embarrassment.
NNAMDIThere's a paradox of sorts at play here. As Washington tries to figure out how to cut budgets and trim workforces, if you're going to try to create a leaner, more effective government, you actually need to hire more effective, talented people to manage government programs. And you probably have to pay them more. Likewise, if you decide to outsource functions of government, you need to have highly qualified people within government to police and manage those outside agencies. How do you solve that apparent paradoxical dilemma, Max Stier?
STIERWell, you, you know, stated, I think, the issues really perfectly. You have to invest in order to be able to create a payoff later on. And in this environment, it's really tricky to do. And, I think, it comes, you know, back to the point that there are, you know, at least two sort of core problems here. The first is the executive branch leadership isn't around long enough to actually make the investments that are needed in order to be able to have that long-term payoff.
STIERIf you're around for two years, do you really invest in changing your hiring processes? And then the second is, if you look at Congress, Congress is a big part of the problem here. If you don't have a budget, if you're operating on a continuing resolution, even if you're operating on a budget and you have a year when you have to make investments over many years -- companies use capital budgets. They have multi-year budgets. We need to change the way we do business in government if we're going to expect to get better government.
NNAMDIThe problems of the USAJobs website also highlights a bigger, probably philosophical question: What work should the federal government be doing and what should it be outsourcing? Here is Delabian (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Delabian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DELABIANThank you. One of the things that always distresses me is the idea that we "want smaller government" and so we are outsourcing all these things to the private sector. By definition, a private sector business has to make a "profit." So it always seems to me that whatever the government was doing with paying people to get this job done now costs that much plus whatever the profit is that this private company now has to make.
DELABIANAnd so it has seemed to me that it's great for Republicans and people who likes the private sector to get more wealth, but we, as the public, are shortchanging ourselves and paying people more, are paying more for these services than we should. In addition, the public sector was where black people and women went because we knew that hiring was "fair." If you had the education, you were in the pool.
DELABIANThe private sector can discriminate, and so it really feels to me like those people who need a fair way to know they're going to be employed are also being, what, done a disservice as more things are being outsourced into private sector.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Delabian. Stay tuned because there's the other side of that coin we got in an email from Karen, who said, "I was happy to hear your guest mention the quiet explosion of contractors essentially doing the work of the government but for fewer benefits, financial and otherwise, and with not a small amount of stigma. I am one of the aforementioned PSCs..." -- I guess -- what's a PSC, a private service contractor?
NNAMDI"...PSCs. And I'm shocked at the way we are treated as second-class citizens. I'd be happy to hear this discussed." Who volunteers to discuss this? Joe Davidson, you are volunteering.
DAVIDSONYou know, another thing that's interesting -- I did a story not too long ago, from last few weeks, about a private contractor, an employee of a contractor, you know, whistle-blowing. It was a whistle-blowing case. And what struck me at that time was that the employees of contractors really don't have much of a voice in this town. Federal workers, many of them are unionized, and they have a strong voice, probably could be stronger in some cases. But they also have champions on the Hill -- contractors have an association with businesses.
DAVIDSONBut the employees of contractors really don't seem to have much of a voice. And I think that, in some cases, what happens with them does fly under the radar and would really don't know that much about what's going on with them because they'd really don't have anybody to speak up for them.
NNAMDIOn now to Rich in Centreville, Va. Rich, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHHi. Kojo, I love your show. Thanks for taking my call.
RICHJust a couple quick comments. The lady that called in -- I wasn't even going to bring this up, but, you know, we plow for -- I own a company, and we plow for VDOT. And the fact that, you know, we don't have any snow right now, we may not get any snow, they're not paying us a penny. Whereas, if they had employees on them -- I think they switched to contractor for that reason because there is a savings when you hire contractors to do work.
RICHYou don't have the benefits. You don't have the retirement. You don't have this. You don't have that, so bad for me, no snow, but good for the state 'cause they're not paying anybody. But my other point was, you know, I'm -- again, I'm in the private sector. We're working today. We work Friday. We work a lot more hours than, I think, most federal employees work. And if it's -- I was at a party on New Year's Eve, and I was talking to some federal employees over there. They get out of work, I think, at, like, noon on Friday.
RICHSo I -- it just -- I know federal workers work hard, but they seem to get a lot more benefits than the people -- not seem. I know they do. They get more benefits than people in the private sector. And that one guy that said he was working, didn't want to give his name -- I'm not saying that they should have to take a pay cut, but the bottom line is there is an awful lot of unfairness from the private sector when you look back into the public sector. And that's just the way it is.
RICHNow, the lady that you have on is typical. She's a federal employee, and she says how to get, you know, big expensive government jobs. I mean, that smacks of what -- I'm 53 years old, and that smacks of what I thought public -- you know, public service employees did. You know, they were supposed to help the public, not be in it for themselves. So thanks for taking my call. You have a great show.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rich. And you'll notice that you're not the only person working on this federal holiday. But who's complaining?
NNAMDILily Whiteman, the notion that when you write a book called "How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job," that you're simply trying to get people to get a federal job for themselves and not to serve the public. I think you need to respond to that.
WHITEMANNo. I think you really have to have fire in the belly to work in the government. And most of my colleagues, and myself, do have a passion for what we're doing, and we are well aware that we're working for the public good. And that's part of the reason why it's distressing to be slammed that -- because the public is rarely reminded that, you know, we make sure the water supply goes. We make sure the airlines are safe. We do all kinds of critical life and death services. And, just as a footnote, I'll say I didn't get out at 12 o'clock on Friday.
NNAMDIPartnership for Public Service is what the organization is called. It seems that a lot of people think that public employment and public service are two different things.
STIERUnfortunately, that's true. And, again, I think the public doesn't really have a real understanding about what their workforce is doing for them. And the fact of the matter is that -- and we talked a bit about the politicians and how they're responsible for that. But I think the government does a poor job of communicating the value it's adding each and every day. We produced a program called the Service to America Medals where we identify great public servants. We need those stories told more.
STIERFrankly, I think the media, again, loves to focus on, you know, the problem, the gotcha moment rather than the contribution moment. And we need to see those stories promoted so that people have a really -- you know, a fair understanding. The real challenge here is that there are things broken in government, and we need to fix them. I think the point here is that, rather than simply tearing it down, we need to think about how we rebuild it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your email. And we're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on the future of the federal workforce. You can still call us -- oh, the lines are busy. Send us an email to email@example.com, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIFederal government workers, 2012, is what we're talking about with Joe Davidson. He's the "Federal Diary" columnist for The Washington Post. Lily Whiteman is a federal employee who writes the Careers column. She writes as a careers columnist for the Federal Times, and she's the author of "How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job." And Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Let's go to Bob in McLean, Va. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBYes. Hi, Kojo. Kojo, I worked for the government for approximately 27 years. And this is a very brief story for Lily Whiteman, OK? My wife was retired, actually laid off by Verizon after 35 years. She has an MBA. She's got PR experience. She's got sales experience, people experience, all kinds of qualifications with federal government. She got Lily Whiteman's book. She took a course at USDA, which their course used to be based, and they longer -- no longer have the course -- used to be based in Lily Whiteman's book.
BOBShe applied to the federal government. I actually had her lined up with executives in the agency I work for, one of the largest agencies in the federal government, which was alluded to a little while ago. I wouldn't say which one. And we do 24 by seven. And, basically, the executives told my wife -- she got no interviews after six months, and the executive told my wife the reason for that is because they were only hiring vets by mandate from our HR department, which I verified with the HR department that was true.
BOBSo, basically, that was her experience. She now is working for a company which does marketing for Verizon and work for the same executives that she worked for, you know, when she was working directly for Verizon. So that's been our experience with the federal government, is that, you know, the whole process is not based upon people's qualifications. And Lily Whiteman's book didn't work. And then we went back to the USDA, and they say, they realized it wasn't working. They discontinued a course.
NNAMDILilt Whiteman, the job available for vets only.
WHITEMANWell, I hear a lot from veterans that they're discriminated against in the job market. And I hear from non-vets that they think all the veterans are getting all the jobs. I'm sorry your wife has had a tough time, and it sounds like she has qualifications that would suit a lot of federal jobs, like program management and policy analyst and public affairs and so forth. And I'm sorry that my book didn't help her get the job, but I -- yet, but perseverance is a very important part of the job search.
WHITEMANIt's not -- it's very common to have to try many times before landing a job. And I would say that the rule in the agency you work for, that they're only hiring veterans is -- I honestly never heard of that. I'm sure other agencies aren't using that rule.
NNAMDIWell, here's what we got in an email from Sarah in Reston, who says, "I'm currently in the process of trying to apply to the federal government, and it stinks. It's a maze of confusing qualifying questions, and you can't represent your skills. It's clearly a computer, sorting for specific words. And if you don't hit the right search term, your application doesn't get seen by the eyes of a human.
NNAMDI"I'm currently applying for a job for a position that exactly matches my talents, skills, et cetera, but haven't heard anything for several months. Then the job was reposted, so I'm applying again but don't hold out much hope. It's a worthless system," says Sarah, adding a grrr to her remarks.
WHITEMANFirst of all, I have never found any evidence that non-military agencies go by keywords, and I've -- in every people who run these kind of computer systems. And I think that's a myth. And basically, right now, what gets your application read is if you score high on short answer questions that are now included in a lot of applications. So if you look at a job and the short answer questions you can't answer, the highest level of experience in most of them, your time is probably better spent elsewhere. And...
NNAMDIAnd you also had recommended researching the specific agency that you're applying to.
WHITEMANAbsolutely. And there's lots of ways to do that. One of Max's sites, bestplacestowork.org, rates agencies, and there are other sources as well. Agencies like OMB investigate agencies, and you can get a feel for what's going from those kinds of reports as well. But one secret that a lot of people don't know about is that if you're continually striking out in the job search, you can contact the hiring official who's named -- there's -- every application has a contact person, and you can contact that person.
WHITEMANAnd a lot of people are afraid to do that, but that's really part of their job, to respond to this kind of request. And I've talked to many of them myself, and they're quite helpful. You can find out where you scored in the competition and use that information to help improve your future applications. And if you've had an interview and haven't gotten a job, by all means, contact the interviewer and ask for some tips. And you might find out things that will help you the next time.
WHITEMANAnd I also encourage people to get a second opinion on their applications. Just like every writer needs an editor, to have another pair of eyes on your application can really help improve it.
NNAMDIAny advice to add to that, Max?
STIERYou know, I think the number one piece was perseverance that Lily said. It is a decentralized process. There are a lot of places that are really challenging. But in addition to perseverance, just following up on what Lily has said, is that human contact. You know, use your network to find people to talk to. Go in and have informational interviews because that human contact is critical to understanding what the state of play is, whether, in fact, the position is truly open or whether there's someone who's, you know, since been, you know, identified as what -- you know, who they want in the job.
STIERAnd you're likely to hear about the openings that way, too.
WHITEMANAnd nowadays you can network online with...
WHITEMAN...websites like govloop.com and using LinkedIn and those other kinds of social media.
NNAMDIHere is Sandy in Columbia, Md. Sandy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANDYThank you. Could any of your guests comment on the eight to nine months backlog of pension payments to retirees? OPM is the agency which handles that...
NNAMDIYes. We all know that the federal workforce is aging, and there's a huge wave of retirements coming. On the one hand, the easiest and most tempting way to shrink the size of government agencies is to eliminate positions when people retire. But it turns out that this can lead to all kinds of problems. First, I guess, the question that Sandy is raising, in that there is a backlog, a big pension backlog. Joe Davidson, know anything about that?
DAVIDSONYeah, I've written a few columns about that, and it's a longstanding problem. How to process retirement has been a longstanding problem for the Office of Personnel Management. They've been -- they've tried to modernize the system, going back many years, and they basically had one failure after another. And the situation now is that many people, when they retire, will only get a partial retirement check for many months.
DAVIDSONI wrote about a person a couple of months ago who was just getting his -- it was a full year for him, basically, so it's more than eight or nine months for some people. And they, frankly, can't seem to get it right. And this administration has tried, previous administrations have tried, and it's just -- frankly, it seems to me is just a major mess that OPM really needs to straighten up. I think OPM has done a number of good things, but this remains a problem.
NNAMDIAnd it seems that the number of retirements has caught the OPM somewhat by surprise. Do government agencies have enough people in the pipeline to fill those jobs? I saw one of your columns quoting the head of OPM, John Berry, the most relentlessly optimistic person I have ever met in my life. But isn't this going to be a bit of a problem?
DAVIDSONWell, it's definitely going to be a bit of a problem. I don't know if it's caught them by surprise because, in fact, many people predicted the baby boom wave of retirements would have come along before now. But the recession caused many people to stay at work because they…
NNAMDIBut it still spiked last year pretty quick.
DAVIDSONYeah, and it's still coming. I mean, these people are getting older. And so, you know, they may have stayed in their jobs a couple of years longer because of the recession, and they couldn't afford to retire. Clearly, at some point, they're going to have to retire, and that point, I think, is starting now for many of the baby boomers. And so it is an issue that the Office of Personnel Management will have to deal with from a personnel standpoint, a personnel management standpoint.
DAVIDSONAnd, obviously, all of the agencies will have to deal with in terms of their personnel and having enough people to deal with the jobs or deal with the services that the public demands, and so that -- I mean, that also gets to this notion of cutting back. Whenever I hear people talking about cutting back the federal workforce, that may or may not be a good idea, but I think it's incumbent upon those who call for a cutback to say, what services are you also willing to cut back, as opposed to just saying, let's cut people without any discussion on the impact.
STIERWell, look, I think Joe said it perfectly there. We really need to look at better value, not just less cost, when we're talking about changes in government. And the workload is increasing across the board. You got, you know, the issue you described with OPM, but, you know, veterans are increasing, coming back. And that puts, you know, increased load on the veterans department. Same with Social Security benefits. More folks are demanding more from government. And it's requiring federal employees, actually, to work a lot harder. It can't be a surprise for folks.
STIERYou have a lot of retirement-eligible people, and you got a environment that is incredibly harsh for them and doesn't look like it's going to get better. You know, it doesn't surprise me that a lot of very talented, sensible people are saying, no mas, I don't want to do it anymore. And that's going to present a very, very large problem that I don't think we really understand. The federal government is about trying to make our lives better and to avoid real problems.
STIERWe're going to have more problems, and we're not going to respond to them well because we're really not creating the government for the future.
NNAMDIHere is Katie in Washington, D.C. Katie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATIEThank you for taking my call. I recently transitioned from the industrial workforce into the government and have taken a 30 percent pay cut, but part of that was wanting to serve my country. I think that a few of the past callers have really undervalued what we bring to the workforce. And in one of those moments, it was really about work-life balance that the federal government can't provide.
KATIEAnd I think that that's a very important thing that the federal government lead on that issue for the American public because what you're seeing is a lot of burnout in the private sector and why trying to shrink the workforce without shrinking the services provided at the federal level we're going to also be burning out our federal employees, who really do work, I think, incredibly hard for the good of the public with, you know, a fairly moderate salary. And I think it's commendable work that we are doing. And it should be recognized in that way.
NNAMDIFascinating that Katie says the federal government should be leading the way in providing some work-life balance, Max Stier, because we know that states are often called laboratories for federal policies. And 2011 saw major fights between governors in Ohio and Wisconsin and labor unions representing state workers. To what extent were those fights previews of fights that are likely to be coming to Washington?
NNAMDII'd like to hear you about this also, Joe Davidson, because, on the one hand, Katie says the government should be providing an example of work-life balance. On the other hand, the pushback seems to be coming from people who say, no, no, the government should be operating a lot more like the private sector.
STIERLook, I think it depends on the job. When you're working at the Department of Homeland Security and you're, you know, focusing on trying to, you know, prevent a terrorist attack here, you know, work-life balance is probably not going to be the number one thing that you're presenting as your value proposition to those folks.
STIERI think we need a system that gets us the right talent at the best price possible. And, you know, as the caller said, a lot of folks are in government because they want to make a difference. That's part of the value package. The value package has got to be broader than that. And for some folks, it may be the work-life balance. For others it might be other things.
NNAMDIJoe Davidson, last comment.
DAVIDSONWell, I think one of the major things the government has done toward enhancing work-life balance recently is to really push for telework. There's telework legislation now that is -- John Berry made it a priority issue. And so, by teleworking, working at home, that enhances the work-life balance for a lot of people. And work-life issues are a major factor in the best places to work survey that Max has mentioned.
NNAMDIJoe Davidson is the Federal Diary columnist for The Washington Post. Joe, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDILily Whiteman is a federal employee and the careers columnist for the Federal Times and author of "How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job." Lily Whiteman, thank you for joining us.
WHITEMANThanks so much.
NNAMDIMax Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Max, thank you for joining us.
STIERThank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd a special thank you to Florence, Max's wife, who helped him find his way here. And a special thank you and a Happy New Year to Zachary and Noah, who managed to stay awake during the entire broadcast. Those are Max and Florence's children. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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