Survey reveals gaps in agency planning for next-generation workforce

Wednesday - 5/28/2014, 2:48pm EDT

As experienced, long-serving federal employees become eligible to retire and a budget squeeze puts the brakes on new hiring, agencies are struggling to fill gaps in their succession-planning efforts, according to a new survey.

Training, recruiting and other activities designed to prepare a new generation of workers to take the reins are all cited as top priorities by federal human-capital professionals, according to the the survey, which was conducted by Cornerstone OnDemand and Worldwide Business Research.

But many of the HR professionals surveyed said their agencies aren't planning to invest in those areas. And even where they are taking action, too many agency managers are taking a piecemeal, "siloed" approach to succession planning, according to experts who parsed the survey results.

Retirement wave on the horizon?

Succession planning is important because the number of current federal employees eligible for retirement is continually growing, experts say, sparking fears of a retirement wave across government.

According to the Government Accountability Office, about 30 percent of federal employees on the job at the end of fiscal 2011 will be eligible to retire by 2016 — 58 percent of whom are in senior-level positions.

"If the number of employees in the federal workforce that are eligible to retire actually do retire, federal agencies will be at risk for achieving their missions — not only because of the number of employees, but because of the loss of institutional knowledge and skills that employees developed," David Krieg, human capital officer for the Internal Revenue Service, is quoted in the report accompanying the survey results.

That's not lost on HR managers. However, the survey indicated a disconnect between their intentions and actual implementation of succession-planning initiatives.

The survey results pointed to a disconnect between HR managers' intentions and actual implementation of succession-planning initiatives.

For example, 71 percent of survey respondents said their No. 1 priority this year is identifying and closing skills gaps. But according to the survey only 45 percent said they were actively working on it.

Another 60 percent of respondents said enhanced recruitment — to get the right people with the right skills on the job — was a top priority this year. But, again, less than half — 46 percent — said they are currently investing in that area.

Agencies taking 'siloed' approach on planning

Aside from that disconnect, the survey also pointed to the lack of a strategic approach to succession planning. Instead, agencies and their human-capital managers seem to be embarking down a path of piecemeal, ad hoc measures.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to succession planning, but the consequences of a lack of a concerted, unified effort could be dire," the report concluded.

For example, while some of the individual components of succession planning cited above were rated as top priorities, "succession planning," itself, was cited by only 38 percent of human-capital managers as a key priority this year. Just 31 percent of respondents said they were actively working on succession planning, and nearly half — 49 percent — said they were actually planning to reduce investments in succession planning.

"Human capital professionals are focusing on individual, siloed projects rather than building strategic, unified efforts toward planning for the future," the report stated. "Lacking a strategic, integrated plan for hiring new talent, evaluating and engaging current employees, and developing future leaders could risk the core foundation of human capital in federal agencies in the years ahead."

Agencies' succession-planning measures are also hindered by the perception, among managers themselves, that they haven't been too successful of late.

Sixty-three percent of respondents said their succession-planning efforts were either "not very successful" or "unsuccessful," and just 4 percent rated them "very successful"

Survey: Is management culture to blame?

The report blamed the deep cuts in agencies' training budgets for that perception.

While 53 percent of respondents cited training and development as a top priority for 2014, only 14 percent indicated they were increasing investments in training — and 44 percent actually said they were actually planning on reducing training investments.

"The pendulum has very much moved to the too little training and development side of the equation and one can only hope it will at least slowly move to the 'close to almost adequate' range on the scale," said John Palguta, vice president for policy, at the Partnership for Public Service, in the report accompanying the survey results. "Again, federal leaders know that it can be penny wise and pound foolish to under-invest in their employees but in some cases they've only had pennies."

Another factor in the disconnect on succession planning? Nearly 80 percent of respondents cited their agency's management culture as a hurdle in meeting key workforce goals.

"When 79 percent of government executives believe that the greatest impediment to achieving their goals is management culture, that culture needs to change," the report concluded.

Krieg, the IRS human capital manager, said agencies will need to get more flexible and creative in their operations.

"Overly regulated and structured processes and policies will no longer be effective in an ever-changing and increasingly complex environment," he said. "Organizations need to empower employees with the freedom to approach problems in different ways. This is particularly important as the workforce becomes more diverse — in terms of different generational groups, and in how people think and work."

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