Wanted: Federal Position

By Kathryn Dura, Blogger for Defense Affairs

Since January 20, there has been a nearly constant onslaught of executive orders and controversies, so much so that it is hard to give each executive order the attention it deserves. On Monday, January 23, President Trump signed three: a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a reimplementation of the “global gag rule” which prohibits the taxes of United State citizens from funding “international family-planning organizations that provide abortion-related services,”[1] and a federal hiring freeze. While, given Trump’s statements on the campaign trail, these moves are not necessarily surprising, each of these orders generated swift backlash. However, given the orders that followed later last week, the general public has largely forgotten about these earlier pieces. While the latest pronouncements no doubt warrant attention, the order stipulating a federal hiring freeze deserves a second glance if only due to the impact that it will have on future federal employees.

The executive order states that there is a 90 day freeze on hiring Federal civilian employees such that “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances” [2].  There are some built-in exemptions; the order does not apply to military personnel or positions “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities” [3]. Additionally, Presidential appointments may still occur. During this timeframe, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will “recommend a long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition” [4] after which the order will expire. Therefore, the goal seems to be forcing the government to more efficiently prioritize funds and eliminate excessive spending. Finally, the order states that attempts to circumvent the freeze through contracting is prohibited. 

On its face, the order does not seem wholly unreasonable; after all, what citizen wants his or her tax dollars funding a wasteful position? However, this policy has severe implications for the future of the federal government should OMB create a similar proposal. 

First, the United States government has been struggling to attract the so-called “Millennials.” According to the Wall Street Journal, employees under the age of 30 made up just 7% of the work force, an eight-year low, as of 2013 [5]. Meanwhile the private sector was at a steady 25%. The obstacles are mostly obvious: the hiring system is long and opaque, the government is heavily bureaucratic and viewed as unstable in the long-term due to partisan shutdowns, there are limited openings due to baby boomers who postpone their retirement , and tight budgets further limit positions [6]. However, the Office of Personnel Management predicted that by September 2016, “nearly a quarter of all federal employees will be eligible to retire” [7]. Perhaps most importantly, overall employment across the various levels of government has fallen by 928,000 employees between 2009 and 2013 [8]. In sum, the government is struggling to attract the  upcoming generation and soon the government will be in dire need of new employees. 

What could go wrong? Clearly, a federal hiring freeze contributes to, rather than alleviates, the aforementioned problems. Worse, it prevents those who are interested in civil service from gaining the necessary experience. The Obama Administration in 2012 created the “Pathways Program” to “streamline pathways to Federal internships and careers in Federal service for students and recent graduates” – in other words to attract the younger generation [9].

Importantly, the internship program was paid and allowed internships to “be converted to a permanent position…within 120 days of successful completion of the program” [10]. At a time when student debt is becoming insurmountable, finding an internship that is paid, provides valuable experience, and translates into a full-time job is beyond attractive. Unfortunately, with the federal hiring freeze, we do not yet know how the order will affect current and potential Pathways interns and their ability to convert their internship into a position [11]. Additionally, positions such as the Civil Service Foreign Affairs (FA) Fellowship Program and the Civil Service STEM Fellowship program are frozen. These positions in the State Department are meant to “bring fresh talent into the Department’s foreign affairs ranks” and “global technical environment” [12]. Finally, unpaid internships seem to be untouched by this order. But students can only work unpaid for so long before they are forced to turn to other options, such as the private sector.
Aside from the effect this order is already having on students and recent graduates, it will ultimately influence the whole country. Currently, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the agency responsible for providing benefits and healthcare to our nation’s veterans, has about 45,000 vacancies and it is unclear if these jobs fall under the public safety exemption [13]. This largely dysfunctional agency no doubt needs an overhaul but an extremely limited number of personnel is unlikely to improve the situation. 

Admittedly, I am biased; I hope to one-day work for the federal government, perhaps in defense or foreign policy, and therefore I am especially sensitive to obstacles that hinder that goal. Nonetheless, this executive order and the subsequent OMB policy will have tremendous implications for the future of the federal government. As the new administration fuels the departures of many in department management positions, who will replenish the ranks? 

Kathryn Dura is a junior studying International Relations and Math at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/trump-executive-orders/514139/ 
[2]  https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/23/presidential-memorandum-regarding-hiring-freeze
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Ibid. 
[5]  https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-government-struggles-to-attract-young-savvy-staff-members-1402445198

[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid. 
[8] Ibid. 
[9] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2012/07/16/office-personnel-management-launches-pathways-programs
[10]  https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/hiring-information/students-recent-graduates/#intern
[11] https://live.washingtonpost.com/do-you-have-questions-about-the-trump-hiring-freeze-and-other-changes-coming-to-the-federal-workforce.html
[12] https://careers.state.gov/work/fellowships/civil-service-fellowship-programs
[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/trump-hiring-freeze-veterans-affairs.html