AFGE Urges Defense Leaders to Better Use Existing Personnel Tools to Address Skills Gaps

Categories: DoD, The Insider

To achieve and maintain management flexibility, the Department of Defense over the years has sought and received a plethora of personnel flexibilities outside the traditional Title 5 civil service system.

DoD, for example, has broad authority to establish the hiring levels and compensation for civilian faculty at the National Defense University and Defense Language Center since 1989.

It has a so-called “pay for performance” demonstration project for the acquisition workforce since 2011.

It has various direct hire authorities as exceptions to competitive hiring for depot maintenance and repair, acquisition workforce, cyber, science, technology and engineering or math positions, medical or health positions, childcare positions, financial management, accounting, auditing, actuarial, cost estimation, operational research, and business administration. 

Yet it still has the skills gaps problems – the difference between the skills DoD needs to fulfill its mission and the skills it currently has. 

For those who have tracked DoD’s use – and misuse – of these special hiring and personnel authorities, this is not a surprise.

In a letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, AFGE identifies DoD’s overreliance on term and temporary employees to perform jobs instead of investing in a stable cadre of career employees as a main cause of these persistent skills gaps. 

According to the Government Accountability Office, DoD increased its hiring of term employees by 40% from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2019, while also extending the employment term of these temps from four to eight years.

DoD rejects the idea that employees could have both existing skills and potential talent, which can only be developed through a long-term commitment to those employees as a valuable part of a team.

The perception that an employee only has a single skill that cannot be adapted and developed as the department’s missions change is a reason why the department discards skills through the use of term and temporary appointments and resorts to personnel caps. 

In one particularly egregious example of how personnel caps impact the department’s ability to build a stable cadre of workers, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., relies on 12-month term appointments to fill the majority of its foreign language teachers so they can be easily fired if the agency needs to beef up staffing in another area to meet an emerging need. 

Because the language center now needs teachers trained in Russian and Chinese, yet is unable to increase the total size of its workforce due to personnel caps, it’s randomly downsizing faculty in other languages including Turkish, Arabic, Dari, and Urdu.

“Under the mechanical operation of personnel caps, when an increased workload triggers increased hiring in one language program, it also triggers a corresponding arbitrary reduction in other language faculties,” AFGE writes. 

“The lost capabilities and talents that are not developed as a result of this short-sighted approach to management contributes to the persistent skills gap problems of the department,” AFGE adds. 

Not enough oversight from OPM 

Another factor that exacerbated DoD’s skills gap problems is inadequate oversight from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which gave DoD these hiring authorities.

For instance, each military department has created separate developmental paths and certification requirements for jobs requiring similar sets of skills, which creates significant barriers for hiring and promoting employees.

OPM could help DoD fill its skills gaps by reviving the use of standing registers to build a group of candidates for jobs requiring similar skills and qualifications, rather than requiring applicants to apply separately for individual job openings. These registers have been used successfully in the past to generate large lists of qualified and diverse candidates at an economical cost. 

“The Department of Defense has sought these authorities purportedly in the quest for greater management flexibility, often to the detriment of the long-term job security of employees being hired into the Department,” AFGE explains. “In fact, the mis-use of these authorities arguably has been one of the primary factors leading to these persistent skills gaps in the workforce.” 

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