Broaden the pool for civil service

When I first started working for the US Department of Agriculture 38 years ago, I was one of thousands who signed up for a life-long commitment to public service. I felt the government not only provided challenging work for a good cause, but also offered other benefits no other employer could provide.

Yet, even as I joined my peers in answering President John F. Kennedy's call to serve, the events of the '60s bore the beginnings of a new era of skepticism toward government. Whether due to politicians and scandals or downsizing and reinvention, the word "bureaucrat" acquired a negative meaning as government service fell from grace. At the same time, programs designed to "scale back" government often failed to examine the human-resource needs of individual agencies. Today, as baby boomers like myself age, a wave of retirements in the government's workforce will leave a personnel void that will be difficult to fill.

Over the next five years, more than half the federal workforce may be eligible to retire. Years of institutional knowledge, skills, and experience will be walking out the door. Unfortunately, the bench of talented employees to replace them is not packed.

Sadly, the federal government doesn't have a lot of experience bringing outsiders into the civil service. At the Department of Agriculture, I benefited directly from the practice of "growing your own," or being promoted from within. Private companies have realized, however, that when there is a "personnel gap" between young, emerging talent and experienced senior-level staff, that organization must look beyond its own walls. Unlike its public counterpart, the private sector has taken advantage of the new mobility of the American workforce - one that moves not just from job to job, but from town to town.

A new study from the Partnership for Public Service shows that the federal government has not fully adjusted to this employment climate. Despite the fact that the federal government's personnel gap will widen into a canyon, the proportion of new hires from outside the government into mid- and senior-level civil-service positions is dramatically low.

In 2000, for instance, out of 134,103 professional and administrative positions filled in the federal government, 69 percent of them were internal candidates. And, at the mid- career level, 85 percent of positions filled came from inside.

Why should a successful professional be interested in making a mid-career switch to work for the federal government? For experienced professionals looking for a chance to do something rewarding and meaningful, nothing beats public service. The work I did at the Department of Agriculture gave me the opportunity to support our national food supply and serve our nation's farmers. In addition, post-9/11 Americans are looking for ways to use their knowledge and skills for the public good. President Bush recently called on Americans to dedicate two years of their lives to serving the nation. When people are asking, "How can I help my country?" the government should be giving them a solid answer.

The first step is to address the structural barriers that keep mid- career job seekers from considering federal employment. The government needs to:

• Make information on federal jobs and the application process user-friendly, and ensure that federal workers are compensated at levels that are competitive with their private-sector counterparts.

• Address pension portability and retirement-security issues, so that new hires can protect and leverage the benefits they earned in the private sector.

• Update current exchange and intergovernmental mobility programs to introduce mid-career executives to the opportunities and challenges of the federal workplace.

• Rethink what it means to have a government career. My 38 years of service will no longer be the norm; many of today's young professionals want a workplace that can be a career-builder, not just a career.

American workers are constantly looking for new and challenging positions. The federal government's looming retirement crisis creates an opportunity for us to open new doors for them. But it will only happen if the government rethinks how it attracts and recruits employees for senior positions, providing answers for those who wish to serve.

• Michael Sicola recently retired from the Agricultural Marketing Service Agency of the US Department of Agriculture, where he was a budget analyst.

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