WASHINGTON – Persistent skills gaps across an array of critical jobs within the Department of Defense can be attributed largely to an overreliance on term and temporary employees to perform jobs instead of investing in a stable cadre of career employees, the largest federal employee union says.
In a letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley documents how DoD continues to face skills gaps in various occupations that are critical to our national security despite having received a plethora of personnel flexibilities outside the traditional Title 5 civil service system.
“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,” Kelley writes. “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.”
According to the Government Accountability Office, DoD increased its hiring of term employees by 40 percent from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2019, while also doubling the duration of these term-limited appointments to eight years.
“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,” Kelley writes.
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 faculty 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. As Kelley explains, “…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.”
Lax oversight by the Office of Personnel Management of the delegated hiring authorities that have been provided to the Department of Defense also have resulted in poor management decisions. 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, Kelley writes.