When Uncle Sam's Budgeteers Go After Middle Managers

Is a pink slip the reward for trying to follow the work ethic?

FOR the past few years, middle managers have been a favorite target of cost cutters in corporations. Now the government has jumped on the bandwagon: In 1990, Sharon Pratt Kelly campaigned for mayor of Washington on a platform that advocated eliminating 2,000 middle-management jobs. More recently, the Clinton administration's plans to reinvent government include the possible elimination of 140,000 middle-management positions - more than half of the 252,000 jobs the White House wants to cut.

As an employee with a GM-14 job classification, I am a target because my job title includes the word ``supervisory.'' It seems to make no difference to the job cutters that as a supervisor, I (and many others) perform similar duties to the rank-and-file employees, in addition to carrying out managerial and administrative tasks.

If I were to lose my job because I am a supervisor, I would in effect be penalized for making something of myself. I am being told my expertise is irrelevant, my knowledge is unnecessary, that I have wasted a lot of time, energy, and effort in working my way up the ladder over the past 22 years.

My career in the federal government started in June 1972, the same month I graduated from high school. I was a participant in the Federal Junior Fellowship Program. This pilot program - now extinct - was established to assist college students financially by guaranteeing them a United States government job with the same agency each summer during four years of college. In return, the government agency would have a young, well-trained, college-educated employee it could hire - assuming the student had performed well during his or her stint. As I recall, there were no guarantees beyond the four summers. The government wasn't required to offer a student a job; and a student wasn't obligated to take one, if offered.

I worked every summer, as well as most Christmas and spring breaks. The work paid off: I became a full-time employee a few months after graduation. After college I took work-related courses on my own time and enrolled in agency-sponsored training classes. Throughout my career, I played by the rules, performed my job to the best of my ability, and was rewarded with a few promotions.

Eventually I applied for a couple of managerial positions and was hired for one of them. I accepted a job as a GM-13 supervisor (even though I would manage several employees who were the same grade as I, some of whom made more money). I was excited and proud to be on the managerial track.

Now I face the possibility of derailment simply because I had the desire to be successful in government. Make no mistake about it: the primary way to move up in government is to become a supervisor or a manager.

Washington Post columnist Mike Causey has noted that most of the GM-13 managerial jobs in the government are held by white, male, military veterans. I am none of the above. In fact, I am one of the few black female GM-14 supervisors in my agency. The irony is that if I had remained a GS-12, or below - where most of the government's women and minorities are situated - I might be on safer ground.

Forget about breaking the glass ceiling; I'm more concerned about falling through a trap door.

I understand the need to eliminate slots and positions. I realize the budget crunch dictates something be done. But why focus so heavily on one group of employees? Why assume that most middle managers are not making significant contributions and therefore are not needed?

Remember, we were promoted because we were among the best performers. So why are we the very people to be cast aside?

It makes no sense.

What ought to be the federal government's (and corporate America's) most precious resources have become the most expendable: its employees.

It is becoming routine to lay off employees - particularly middle managers - in the American workplace. A 1993 Wall Street Journal article noted that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record 1.4 million executives, managers, and administrative professionals have lost their jobs since 1989.

Before the federal government decides to add to the figure cited above, it needs to address a number of issues.

Is it prudent for the government to abolish so many jobs and discard large numbers of supervisors and managers with 15, 20, or 25 years of valuable experience? Who will do the work of the supervisors and managers? Are non-managers willing to take on managerial tasks at no extra pay? Who will be left to run the government - only senior managers and those below the GS-12 level? What will happen to those middle managers too young to retire and too old to be hired elsewhere once their positions are eliminated?

I've heard vague talk about job retraining. But how much retraining in the country has been directed toward middle managers? How will those in the lower grades ever hope to be promoted if there are major cutbacks in managerial slots? How can the government expect to attract the best workers if it severely limits their mobility within the government?

The federal government certainly has its problems, including some with a portion of its employees. But if the administration thinks it can improve government by eliminating experienced people, it ought to think again. While some of us might be part of the problem, the rest of us undoubtedly are part of the solution. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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