Workforce challenges are especially acute in the U.S. federal government, in which many employees are expected to retire in less than a decade.
by Site Staff
July 3, 2008
Workforce challenges are especially acute in the U.S. federal government, in which many employees are expected to retire in less than a decade. To address this pending shortage, federal organizations are integrating learning with other parts of the talent suite.
With more than 2.7 million workers on its payroll, the U.S. government is the largest employer in the United States. Often viewed as a tangled web of agencies and departments laden with cumbersome processes, the U.S. government has emerged as an unlikely pacesetter in the area of human capital management (HCM). A pioneer in developing HCM methodologies and an early adopter of technologies designed to support these strategies, the federal government has leapfrogged the private sector in terms of actualizing them.
This is good news across the federal government and bodes well for private-sector companies that can advance their strategies based on lessons learned from the government’s approach to HCM, as outlined in the President’s Management Agenda, an aggressive strategy for improving the management of the federal government announced in 2001.
While the largest private-sector employer (Wal-Mart) employs about half as many workers as the federal government, the challenges both organizations face on the HCM front are similar. In fact, these challenges remain consistent across most organizations. While organizational size matters when it comes to issues such as scalability and change management, it does not matter when it comes to the challenges organizations face around workforce productivity and management, especially as organizations across the board continue to invest in building and retaining competitive workforces.
Organizations of all sizes and across all industries are asking the same questions: How do I increase workforce productivity? What is the most strategic way to maximize operational performance while increasing staff retention? What is the best way to increase employee engagement and prepare for the vacancies of retirees? How can I identify and maximize the talent in my current employee base, while cultivating new leadership for future generations?
As the proverbial red tape involved in government expansion has created more stringent systems requirements and higher security and regulatory standards, federal decision makers face growing challenges around managing their talent.
Fueled by congressional mandates and daunting predictions about the impact baby-boomer retirements will have on the federal workforce, federal agencies have spent the past few years developing HCM strategies and modernizing processes to focus on integrated knowledge retention, employee development and succession planning. By integrating previously siloed processes, systems and data, these agencies have a full view of the skills and talent that exist within the agencies.
Visibility into how talent allocation aligns with organizational needs enables managers to shift resources as necessary to maximize productivity. By aligning employees with organizational needs and goals, many agencies are operating more efficiently and effectively than their private-sector counterparts. Fortunately, the lessons learned by federal agencies on the HCM front also are applicable as organizations in the private sector continue to look for new ways to maximize talent and increase competitive advantage.
Plugging the Brain Drain
The exodus of baby boomers into retirement has, and will continue to have, an unprecedented effect on the American workforce. In the federal sector, not all of the employees eligible for retirement are expected to take it, but the U.S. Office of Personnel Management projects that nearly 40 percent of eligible retirees will leave the workforce and take an enormous wealth of information with them. And while the private sector also faces mass retirements from the baby-boomer generation, the significantly high public-sector statistics have led federal government officials to take proactive measures to prepare for the impending brain drain.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress and the president’s administration have not turned a blind eye to the problem either, making strategic HCM a priority through initiatives such as the President’s Management Agenda. Maintaining compliance with the President’s Management Agenda has been the primary driver for many federal agencies to make significant improvements to their strategic human capital strategies and processes, especially in performance management, learning and development, and competency assessments.
Retaining Institutional Knowledge
While analysts debate whether the baby-boomer retirements actually will result in the “silver tsunami” predicted, government officials are nonetheless taking proactive measures to prepare for the looming retirements and possible labor shortages, a practice their executive counterparts in other industries would be wise to embrace. In government, extensive retirements would result in the loss of so much institutional knowledge it would be difficult for many government agencies to fulfill their missions.
To meet this potential crisis, government agencies at all levels are turning to HCM technology solutions that not only enable them to cultivate a prepared and competitive workforce for the future, but also to retain critical knowledge and maintain productivity. These talent management solutions enable government executives to forecast employee retirements and job vacancies and help them identify potential candidates from the broader organizational talent pool based on how skills possessed by remaining employees map to the skills required for vacated positions.
Where their private-sector counterparts have been lauded for the speed with which they adopt new learning and performance-related technologies, it is the public sector that has been most effective in integrating learning solutions with broader HCM goals and strategies. The President’s Management Agenda and the rapidly aging government workforce have encouraged the development of integrated learning programs that not only develop employee talent but also increase workforce productivity and drive business performance.
Although the retention of institutional knowledge is an issue at all levels in government agencies, it will be most heavily felt at the top. According to the U.S. GAO, government employee retirements are projected to include nearly 59 percent of federal executives by 2011.
Succession planning poses a challenge for most organizations, largely because executives are unsure how to approach the succession planning process. For government agency executives — many of whom face issues associated with leadership that often is decided through political appointments and navigation of the government’s clearly paved merit system — the challenges are even more complex. Despite the challenges, the ideals used by government agencies can assist private-sector peers as they shape succession plans.
Strong succession plans, regardless of industry, are approached through an integrated process. Succession planning should not focus on “people replacement,” but rather on strengthening and identifying talent at all levels of the organization. These plans should identify critical roles in the organization, determine staffing needs and provide a framework for identifying the best candidate replacements.
Learning and development activities should be assigned to candidates to improve their readiness to assume these leadership positions, and organizations should monitor and measure their progress at regular intervals to ensure they are on target to assume those positions when necessary. When tied to learning, succession planning can be a powerful catalyst for organizational transformation and continued development.
Laboring to Fill a Gap
With a total workforce of 17,000 — and an expected management retirement of 54 percent in the next five years — the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is a good example of an agency tackling these issues head-on.
DOL strives to keep employee engagement and morale high while strategically placing staff in roles in which they will contribute most optimally to the efficiency of the organization. Its training department owns employee learning and development and manages content for common-needs training that is required of every employee.
Like many other federal agencies, DOL originally was using inefficient and disparate systems to administer this training and was challenged by the logistics of training the annual influx of new hires and evaluating and placing new hires in open and pending positions throughout all levels of the organization.
With its top two strategic goals marked as creating a prepared workforce and creating a competitive workforce, DOL knew it needed a robust technology to propel its efforts in creating optimal productivity. DOL set out to establish a learning management system of record that would deliver required common-needs training, aid in skills assessments and support multiple learning, content development and learning needs.
DOL needed a highly scalable and extensible solution that could enable the agency’s current initiatives and expand as needed to support future talent management requirements and technologies. After an evaluation of multiple systems, DOL implemented Plateau Systems’ learning management system (LMS), a solution that was able to consolidate DOL’s legacy training systems into a single, enterprise-wide LMS.
In 2005, DOL became the first government agency to receive the highest performance rating under the e-government initiatives across all five of its government-wide technology initiatives. DOL manages and delivers required training, conducts continual skills assessments and supports its ongoing performance needs with its agency-wide LMS. DOL also adopted a centralized content management system that acts as the source of DOL course content for all its employees.
Consolidating its legacy training systems into a single learning management system (LMS) proved to be a valuable exchange for DOL and can be applied to private-sector organizations, as well. By centralizing the content for its LMS, DOL has achieved cost savings by eliminating server-resource costs and improving productivity. Learning administrators and executives now can focus on implementing key strategic learning initiatives instead of managing the day-to-day processes of content and training administration.
A Mandate for Change
As DOL’s example highlights, learning strategies — whether in the public or private sector — deliver the most value when they are tied to broader human capital management initiatives. The government has found success linking training and development programs to HCM and performance mandates and by preparing for impending retirements through improved knowledge retention, workforce development and succession planning programs.
By adopting the best practices identified by government agencies for their own initiatives, private-sector CLOs will be better prepared to proactively address the organizational challenges associated with a changing workforce as it affects their industries.