Two years ago today, I wrote in The Hill that the incoming administration should prioritize recruitment and retention of top talent into the federal workforce. Unfortunately, the current government shutdown reflects a continuing disregard for the role of career staff. Many Americans serving our country, including civil servants, diplomats, members of our armed forces, and the staffs of national laboratories are getting the message that the career paths they chose are insecure and unreliable.
In addition to all of the immediate pain being felt by many public servants and contractors who are struggling to pay their bills — whether they are expected to work without pay or required to stay home from work without pay — there are pernicious, long-term consequences to this treatment of the federal workforce that we need to focus on. Most important, this shutdown undoubtedly will reinforce a discouraging trend: More and more workers are leaving the civil service and diplomatic corps. For example, for fiscal year 2018, which ended on Sept. 30, career civilian retirements were up 24 percent from the previous year. And they are not being replaced. Only 6 percent of federal workers are under age 30.
These statistics are alarming because the federal enterprise urgently needs to recapitalize its talent. There is a huge retirement wave of baby boomers under way; nearly one-third of federal workers are in their 50s, and an additional 13 percent are 60 or over, according to the Partnership for Public Service. As a member of the President’s Management Council in the prior administration, I worked with my colleagues across the government to establish mechanisms for attracting talent from universities and the private sector, especially those with strong technical chops.
This fresh generation will be critical to effectiveness across the federal landscape — from those who choose to serve in our all volunteer military forces to the many departments that perform vital roles every day on behalf of the nation, including Agriculture, Energy, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that our government is only as good as we make it — and if talent hemorrhages from the federal enterprise we will all be the worse for it over the long term.
In addition to the direct impact on federal workers, the shutdown is creating significant uncertainty across the broader landscape of contractors who support the federal enterprise. When I was deputy secretary of Energy, I saw just how crucial this workforce is to our national security, economic competitiveness and global influence. When we faced shutdown threats, we planned meticulously to limit and mitigate the effects on our people and their performance of their important missions, including in cyber security, nuclear deterrence and proliferation prevention, and emergency preparedness and response.
This is especially urgent for teams that are staffed by individuals whose talents are in high demand in the private sector. Even if they are still receiving paychecks, there is widespread confusion and uncertainty about what the future holds. The talented people who have committed their careers to public service have options, especially in a tight labor market — and we should want them to feel valued and recognized for their work so that they continue to choose to work on tackling problems to the benefit of all Americans.
These workers perform many functions, play defense and offense, and often are unsung heroes. In addition to the jobs they do in the present, they are laying the groundwork for our future. They may be digital professionals who are in high demand in industry and who have chosen to work in the public arena because they want to serve our nation — and their expertise is essential to meeting emerging threats to our increasingly interconnected networks and digitized economy. They may be career scientists whose expertise enables them to identify opportunities and challenges to the U.S. competitive edge that can only be met through a concerted, long-term federal effort. They may be in hidden support roles, but without them the delivery of basic services to our citizens would grind to a halt.
What they have in common is that they are mission-oriented people who are proud of their service to our country and who want to come to work and do their jobs. When their roles are devalued, they get the message that they should take their talents elsewhere — or never choose public service in the first place.
Moreover, all of this impacts the government’s ability to recruit tomorrow’s thinkers and leaders. In my conversations with young people motivated to public service at major universities around the country, they are unsure of whether it is a wise career decision to go into a federal agency today — at a time when we urgently need the best talent to join the team and serve our nation in facing major challenges at home and around the world. Taken together, these trends endanger our future. Indeed, if this prolonged shutdown contributes to the disillusionment of a generation of new graduates and young professionals who should be choosing to apply their training and talents to pursuit of the common good, we will all lose.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is a distinguished professor of the practice at the Georgia Institute of Technology and served as deputy secretary of the Department of Energy from 2014-2017. Follow her on Twitter @LSRTweets.