USDA takes direct approach to managing workforce, reducing costs

Friday - 4/6/2012, 10:13am EDT

Billy Milton, chief human capital officer, USDA

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When Tom Vilsack took over as Agriculture secretary a couple years ago, he saw the writing on the wall.

Faced with a shrinking budget, he reviewed every corner of the Department of Agriculture to try and find savings. Now, the agency is cutting travel and closing more than 260 offices.

"Early last spring, understanding our budget constraints, we were proactive in understanding that we needed assistance," said Billy Milton, chief human capital officer at USDA. "One of the most effective ways to do that to avoid furloughs or reductions of force was to seek approval from OPM [Office of Personnel Management] and ultimately OMB [Office of Budget and Management] for voluntary early retirement authority and voluntary separation incentive program authority."

Billy Milton, chief human capital officer, USDA (CHCOC.gov)

Milton told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Friday that USDA's efforts have been a success. To date, more than 7,000 employees have taken advantage of the department's voluntary early retirement authority (VERA) and voluntary separation incentive payments (VSIP).

Based on USDA's successful implementation of VERA-VISA, Milton has found himself in demand by other executives looking to adopt similar programs at their agencies. He offers two bits of advice to anyone who asks: be proactive and be transparent.

"Secretary Vilsack, from the start, shared with the employees our budget constraints," Milton said. "We've been very active with our national labor-management forum and our unions. The secretary has held listening sessions and ask-the-secretary sessions. We have a 'My USDA' publication where we share our progress. Just yesterday, the secretary sent out an all-employee email as to the proposed 2013 budget."

Many agencies are concerned about succession planning due to the "retirement tsunami" that's expected to occur when the bulk of the Baby Boomers begin retiring.

"Leading succession planning efforts is critical," Milton said. "One of the key components we have relied on here at USDA is we need to look at our employees and how we can best equip them to perform as effectively and efficiently as they can."

In 2011, USDA implemented a revised Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program, where the agency was able to recruit 80 individuals.

"It's a rigorous, 18-month, training and employee development program," Milton said. "Upon completing that program, those individuals, once certified, are considered employees that can non-competitively compete for senior executive positions. They don't have to go through the regular review process. They can apply for a job and be picked up for a senior executive service position."

An important component of succession planning is figuring out a way to pass along institutional knowledge to the next generation of managers. USDA does this through a trio of academies within its Virtual University.

One academy is for interns and scholars, another is the school of talent management and the other is a college of professional and leadership development.

"Those three programs are available to all employees," Milton said.

Under the guidance of Vilsack and the oversight of Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed, USDA runs a summer student hiring program, which assigns a sponsor and a mentor to students. The department also requires all of its agencies to implement mentoring programs.

This means that USDA is offering career training at all levels, all the way up to the Senior Executive Service.

"Last week, we had several hundred senior executives take diversity and inclusion training," Milton said.

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