“If you look historically at what’s happened with federal employment, when the country is under times of stress and challenged, that’s when the government has grown,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “The Depression, Korea, Vietnam, the Great Society. We forget about the role of government until it’s clear government has to be part of the solution.”
Palguta said he expects the government will hire as many as a half-million people over the next four years. And he expects the civilian workforce will increase from 1.9 million employees to 2.1 million — similar to the size of the government under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
And the dismal job outlook across the country is helping ensure that agencies get a large selection of candidates to draw from.
Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Association and a Navy shipyard manager in Norfolk, Va., said his shipyard recently received 1,800 applicants to fill 160 apprentice positions. That’s twice as many people seeking to become electricians, pipe fitters, welders and metal inspectors than his shipyard has received in past years.
And those job candidates offer more skills than in the past, Perkinson said. Norfolk is hearing from welders and machinists laid off from the automotive industry, and pipe fitters and electricians who can’t find work in the building trade, he said.
“It helps us out a lot if someone has that skill set, since it takes us less time to train them,” Perkinson said. “And having that many people in the pool gives us a better opportunity to select the best and brightest.”
Navy Secretary Donald Winter said the Navy is hiring contract specialists and systems engineers, and in some cases, luring back former employees who had gone to the private sector. A combination of government benefits and concern about the private sector is making the Navy a more attractive employer, he said.
“We are growing,” Winter said. “Particularly in economic times like this, when you look at financial compensation and benefits, days off, as well as the stability available in the government, we can be competitive with industry.”
The Veterans Affairs Department is on a hiring spree as well. The department’s Veterans Health Administration plans to hire 55,000 employees — a 25 percent increase in its workforce — by the end of fiscal 2014. In this year alone, the agency aims to hire 3,500 registered nurses, 1,000 physicians and 300 human resources managers.
But since there’s a huge national demand for health care professionals, especially nurses, VA must compete hard for those candidates. To do that, the agency offers recruitment and retention incentives, such as scholarships, debt repayment and training programs, said Brian McVeigh, the Veterans Health Administration’s chief consultant for human resources. And VA increased the pay ranges for doctors and dentists in 2007, which has helped it stay competitive, he said.
VHA also wants to hire several thousand psychologists, social workers and other mental health professionals over the next five years, though McVeigh said exact numbers have not been set. “A lot of those [hires] is because of our increasing need to treat returning vets from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan,” McVeigh said. “They’re returning with more serious polytraumatic injuries, and mental health needs.”
That mission of helping wounded veterans is another factor driving candidates to consider VA, McVeigh said. He believes the mission is one factor that keeps VA’s turnover rate for nurses below 10 percent, when turnover rates in the private sector are around 15 percent.
“It’s something people can relate to and feel strongly about,” McVeigh said.
President Barack Obama and his Cabinet have outlined some of their priorities that suggest where additional pockets of hiring will be in the near future:
• The Social Security Administration, to catch up on benefits claims backlogs.
• Intelligence agencies, to beef up staffs of interrogators, analysts, psychologists and people with in-demand language skills.
• The Environmental Protection Agency, for more enforcement and oversight staffs.
Some hiring, such as that at State, the FBI and the Border Patrol, is already occurring. Some will wait until an omnibus 2009 spending bill is passed, which is expected sometime this month or next. Some will wait until the start of fiscal 2010 on Oct. 1. And some will kick off when Congress passes a stimulus package, expected this month.
The stimulus package likely will prompt hiring of more grants managers at agencies such as the Energy and Justice departments, accountants and auditors at the Government Accountability Office, and engineers at the Army Corps of Engineers to manage construction projects.
Obama wants to boost State’s Foreign Service staff by 25 percent. The FBI wants to bring in agents who can speak Arabic and other in-demand languages, and who have skills in areas such as engineering and information technology. And Customs and Border Protection is hiring Border Patrol agents, customs officers, contract specialists, and investigators.
The increased hiring is likely to burden already-taxed human resources offices even further. That’s why Veterans Affairs is planning to — you guessed it — hire more human resources managers, McVeigh said.
Kim Holden, assistant commissioner for management at the Food and Drug Administration, said her agency intends to hire chemists, biologists, pharmacists, consumer safety officers and other employees, but needs more hiring flexibilities, such as direct hire authority.
Palguta said that, in addition to growing their HR staffs, agencies need to improve their online job application systems and automated hiring systems to deal with the influx of candidates.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity,” Palguta said. “I don’t want to see it squandered.”