In Matthew Weinstock's Government Executive Magazine article "Human Capital" (May 1, 2001), the GAO cited some examples of our federal human capital crisis:
NASA: The loss of staff and critical skill sets poses potentially serious problems for the safety and planned flight rate of future space shuttle missions.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission: The agency's inability to retain people with skills necessary to "achieve its mission and fill the gaps created by growing retirement eligibilities could be threatened by the decline in university enrollments in nuclear engineering and other fields related to nuclear safety."
Social Security Administration: Increasing demand for services, the imminent retirement of a large part of its workforce, changing customer expectations, and mixed results of utilizing new technology will challenge the agency's ability to distribute benefits more quickly and accurately.
Agency for International Development: Staffing shortfalls in the procurement area hamper the agency's ability to initiate and monitor contracts.
There are many factors that contribute to the ensuing human capital crisis in the U.S. government. One key factor is that we have been downsizing the federal civilian workforce over the past decade. In David Walker's talk at the E-Gov 2001 conference, he indicated that our federal workforce has been shrinking consistently over the past decade (from 2.3 million federal civil servants in 1990 to 1.9 million in 2000). Essentially, the U.S. federal workforce has been trying to do more with less. In the 1990s the federal government cut back on hiring new people; now, many organizations, like NASA, are feeling the effects. The GAO in its "Report to the President: The Crisis in Human Capital" cited these findings:
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found that personnel cuts involving the elimination of one-third of the space shuttle's program staff affected the agency's ability to support shuttle flights safely.
The U.S. Forest Service's ability to respond to catastrophic fires has been limited by recent losses in experienced firefighters and foresters, among other staff. Shortages of workers required to direct operations and fight the massive public land fires in the summer of 2000 revealed this vulnerability.
The Department of Defense lost nearly 400,000 civilian employees (about 36 percent) during the 1990s, leading to growing concern about the Pentagon's ability to achieve its future weapons acquisition and logistics objectives.
The Department of Energy faces growing management instability as a result of downsizing and retirements. Its Stockpile Stewardship Program, responsible for maintaining the nation's existing nuclear warhead and component stock, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of offices that are vacant or operating with acting managers (from 17 percent in 1996 to about 65 percent in 2000).
More than 80 percent of senior managers at the Department of Veterans Affairs will be eligible for retirement by 2005.
Certain agencies with historically low levels of SES retirements (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency) are expected to see retirement rates more than double by 2005.
As many as 90 percent of senior-level criminal investigators are eligible for retirement by 2005, creating the potential for havoc at agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Secret Service.
The Department of Defense could lose up to half of its civilian acquisition workforce, as more than 50 percent of these employees are eligible to retire by 2005 as well.
Many of these examples are the result of government downsizing over the past decade, the "graying" workforce, little infusion of new, young talent into the government, the mobility and changing work patterns of entering workers, lack of interest in working for the federal government due to salary shortfalls in the government versus those in the private sector, lack of adequate mentoring and workforce planning, and many other reasons.