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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
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1
Introduction

The federal government is the largest single employer of scientists and engineers in the United States. Approximately 223,000 federal employees are engaged in a wide variety of scientific and engineering occupations in every department and agency. Together they constitute more than 13 percent of the federal civilian white-collar workforce (NSF, 1991; OPM, 1989f).

The government is very involved in the conduct and support of scientific discovery and technological progress because science and technology (S&T) are critical components of the nation's economic growth, national security, public health, environmental safety, and other aspects of the public welfare. More than a quarter of federal scientists and engineers are engaged in research and development activities, primarily in laboratories in the departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services and specialized agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The other three-quarters are involved in a broad range of activities in virtually every department and agency, such as management and protection of public lands, parks, forests, fish, and wildlife; data collection and statistical analysis; regulation of health, safety, and environmental pollution; development of the federal highway system; testing and evaluation of large engineering systems in the defense, space, and energy areas; and administration of S&T programs (NSF, 1991).

Scientists and engineers account for 80 of the 441 white-collar occupations in the federal service. In 1989, the latest year for which there are detailed statistics, there were 112,000 scientists (24,000 of them

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

computer experts) and 111,000 engineers.1 They worked in every department and agency, although 65 percent of the scientists worked in three departments (Defense, Agriculture, and Interior) and 79 percent of the engineers worked in just two (Defense and NASA).

Nearly 15 percent of federal scientists and engineers were women, but only 7.2 percent of scientists and engineers at the supervisor/manager level were women. Almost 14 percent were nonwhite. About 10 percent had Ph.D.s, and another 22 percent had master's degrees. They are located in every state, with only about 15 percent working in the Washington metropolitan area.2

PROBLEMS

To carry out its important science and technology functions, the federal government must be able to attract, keep, develop, and effectively use its share of the nation's well-qualified scientists and engineers. There were several major reports in the 1980s that the federal government was losing its best scientists, engineers, and other professionals at the height of their careers to higher-paying positions in the private sector (National Commission on the Public Service, 1989a; OPM, 1988a; NAPA, 1986). The government was also said to be less successful than in the 1960s and 1970s in hiring top graduates at the entry levels to

1  

These were full-time employees with at least a bachelor's degree working in a science or engineering occupational group (see the technical notes in NSF, 1991:1–4, for a fuller explanation). Some 70,000 health professionals, including 10,000 physicians and 40,000 nurses, are not included (OPM, 1989f). Another 139,000 federal employees with science or engineering degrees were working in nonscience or nonengineering positions and are not considered in this study (NSF, 1991:Table B-11). The study also does not cover scientists or engineers working under federal grants and contracts in the universities, national laboratories and other federally funded research and development centers, or private firms.

2  

The reader will find tables of descriptive statistics about federal scientists and engineers, what they do, and where they work in Appendix B.

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

replace the experienced talent that was leaving. Moreover, the situation was predicted to worsen in the long run because the supply of science and engineering graduates is declining, the demand for scientists and engineers from all sectors is expected to increase over the long term (Braddock, 1992), and fewer mid-career federal scientists and engineers will be held by the ''golden handshake'' of the old civil service retirement system (OPM, 1988a).

The committee reviewed the evidence that the government's capacity to hire and keep adequately qualified scientific and technical personnel is eroding. Careful studies of pay comparability by the General Accounting Office (GAO, 1990a, 1991a) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM, 1989a) document that by the late 1980s, federal white-collar employees were paid less than their private-sector counterparts in most occupations and most geographic locations.3 The GAO, for example, looked at salary comparability by locality and found that the private sector paid more than the federal government in more than 90 percent of the cases (GAO, 1990a). Although the average private-sector advantage varied by metropolitan area, from 6 percent in San Antonio to 39 percent in San Francisco, the private sector paid more overall in all 22 metropolitan areas studied (GAO, 1991a).

A Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey of reasons for leaving federal employment in 1989 found not surprisingly that the most highly cited reasons for resigning were related to advancement and pay, but also that these reasons were most cited by those with more education, at higher grade levels, with outstanding performance ratings, and living in high-cost localities (MSPB, 1990). An MSPB survey of former members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) who retired or resigned between 1983 and 1988 found that the ceiling on SES pay was the most

3  

These studies show that salary differentials between the federal and private sectors increased greatly in the late 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, the studies did not compare total compensation, including retirement, health, and other fringe benefits, nor did they take into account noncompensation factors such as greater job security. These factors offset at least part of the salary differential, although they are being reduced—e.g., the new federal employee retirement system is less generous than the old civil service retirement system; layoffs are more likely; etc.

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

common reason given for leaving (MSPB, 1989a:Fig. 4). Meanwhile, supervisors and managers were reporting that they were losing their highest-quality scientists and engineers at a greater rate and that new hires were of lesser quality on average than before (Reck and Mann, 1991).4

Aggregate turnover and vacancy statistics do not, however, show a widespread recruitment and retention problem. Turnover among federal white-collar employees is about 9–10 percent a year, which is about one-third lower than in the private sector (MSPB, 1989b; CBO, 1986). Turnover is even lower among most science and engineering occupations, even though the pay gap may be higher (MSPB, 1989b:Appendix E). A GAO study of pay and attrition in 1985 found, for example, that the quit rate of 2.3 percent for federal chemists was the lowest among the seven occupations examined, although the average pay gap was the highest—from 28 percent to more than 50 percent less than comparable private-sector positions, depending on grade level (GAO, 1987:Table 1.1). Overall turnover among federal scientists and engineers was 4.9 percent in 1989 (calculated from MSPB, 1989b:Appendix E). As in the private sector, turnover is affected by a complex set of factors, of which pay is only one (GAO, 1990b:15).

Similarly, concerning workforce quality, aggregate studies do not find a general decline in factors presumed to be quality related among recently hired scientists and engineers, compared with those hired earlier (Reck and Mann, 1991). These factors include grade-point averages,

4  

It should be noted that there have been significant improvements in federal pay levels since 1989. The SES, for example, received pay increases averaging 25 percent in 1991. FEPCA introduced a new mechanism for increasing civil service salaries according to an employment cost index, which resulted in annual adjustments of 4.2 percent in 1992 and 3.7 percent in 1993. FEPCA also authorized an 8 percent cost differential for high-cost areas, which is being paid in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City metropolitan areas. These increases, poor economic conditions, and other factors have reduced turnover significantly during the last several years.

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

class standing, numbers of publications, and performance appraisal scores.5

In an earlier report, this committee concluded that aggregate data collected by the OPM on turnover "are not very alarming" (Campbell and Dix, 1990:9). However, governmentwide averages might not reveal recruitment and retention problems in particular agencies, occupations, or localities that may have serious effects on certain government missions. Some federal agencies, in fact, have collected more detailed data that documented specific agency-level problems (e.g., PHS, 1989; EPA, 1990; IDA, 1990). The Environmental Protection Agency reported special problems in hiring and keeping health physicists (Mahan, 1990). The Public Health Service (PHS) found that turnover rates were generally low (6–7 percent), but more than half the scientific, medical, and engineering personnel will be eligible for retirement by 1993, which could increase turnover. Turnover was lower in 1988 than in 1980 among physicians, probably due to a "physician's comparability allowance," but at 13 percent, it was still relatively high (PHS, 1989:35). The PHS was finding it almost impossible to recruit scientists, physicians, and engineers at the SES level from the outside. Department of Defense (DOD) labs reported that vacancy rates were high for electrical engineering (19.7 percent), biomedical engineering (12.2 percent), and chemist (11.3 percent) positions (IDA, 1990:III-3). Consequently, we urged OPM to work with the agencies to make the Central Personnel Data File more useful to both OPM and the individual agencies in order to identify and deal with specific problems.

We also noted that maintaining and improving the quality of the federal science and engineering workforce was an important goal, but there was little agreement on how to measure quality. And, as with turnover statistics, favorable governmentwide averages concerning workforce quality indicators do not preclude the existence of serious problems in individual agencies, specific occupations, or critical areas. Although the OPM study of quality-related factors cited above indicated little change across age cohorts of scientists and engineers, a preliminary

5  

Similar results were found in a special OPM study of computer specialists (Harris, 1991).

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

report on a study of DOD scientists and engineers found declines in indicators such as the proportion with doctorates and the average number of publications and patents (Millburn, 1989). In any case, even though the retention or loss of a few top researchers may not be measurable statistically, they may be critical in enabling a research and development laboratory to conduct cutting-edge scientific and engineering work and to attract and motivate high-quality entry-level scientists and engineers. In addition, since it appears that there will be fewer graduating scientists and engineers for at least the next decade, we suggested in our first report that the individual agencies and the federal government at the interagency level examine the trends in the quality of federal scientists and engineers and assess more systematically the future requirements for scientists and engineers and ways to meet them (Campbell and Dix, 1990:31).

In the first report, the committee concluded that many kinds of management structures and practices could be used to carry out the different missions of the various federal agencies. The committee recommended an in-depth study of which mechanisms or combinations of mechanisms for conducting federal S&T-related work could be used more widely to enhance recruitment, retention, and utilization of federal scientists and engineers. We also urged OPM and the departments and agencies to work out an appropriate division of labor for carrying out human resources management—recruitment, development, retention, and utilization (Campbell and Dix, 1990:29–30).6

After the first report was published, the committee was asked by the Carnegie Commission to continue its activities. OPM, which was then involved in the development and passage of FEPCA to reform the pay-related aspects of the civil service system, was supportive and supplied useful information—e.g., data from the personnel management demonstrations, federal workforce quality assessment studies, and changes in recruitment activities—and OPM officials attended the August

6  

An additional recommendation for a study of the adequacy of the political appointment process for recruiting and retaining highly-qualified individuals in S&T-related positions was addressed in a companion study published in March 1992 (National Academy of Sciences, 1992).

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

1991 workshop held by the committee, along with personnel and science and engineering personnel from individual departments and agencies.

ISSUES

In the second phase of the study, the committee was charged with addressing the following issues:

- Who should be responsible for personnel policy for federal scientists and engineers?

Should OPM have the same general responsibility as for other federal employees, or is the science and engineering workforce so unique that its management requires special attention at the top? Should the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the Executive Office of the President, headed by the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, be involved in formulating personnel policy affecting scientists and engineers? What should the roles be of the mission agencies and of Congress?

- What special provisions, if any, should be made for recruiting and administering the federal science and engineering workforce?

Should there be separate pay scales, position classification systems, performance appraisal and promotion policies, or other personnel policies for scientists and engineers? Should there be a special personnel system for senior executive scientists and engineers, scientists and engineers engaged in research and development work, or all scientists and engineers?

- At what level of the federal government should personnel policies affecting scientists and engineers be implemented and managed?

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

How much of the implementation of personnel policies for scientists and engineers should be the responsibility of OPM and how much of the responsibility should be delegated to the mission agencies? At what level within these agencies should the responsibility be located? Who should be responsible for coordination and oversight in such a decentralized management system—OPM, OSTP, or the Office of Management and Budget? There could be a special unit within OPM or there could be an interagency committee under the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology, which is overseen by OSTP and the President's science advisor. How should this coordination take place?

- Who should be responsible for producing the information required to formulate policy and to monitor the effectiveness of the system?

Should it be OPM, the National Science Foundation, or the mission agencies? If the latter, who should be responsible for assuring comparability among agencies? How should this comparability be achieved?

- How should the effectiveness of the system be evaluated?

What are the appropriate indicators of effectiveness? Are there gaps in the existing data base that need filling? If so, what are they? Who should be responsible for filling them?

- Who should do the monitoring, and how frequently should the system be monitored?

Would a quadrennial review, similar to the ones undertaken for executive, congressional, and judicial salaries and for military compensation, be appropriate? Should it be done internally? If so, by which organization? OSTP? OPM? Or should it be done externally by an independent entity? If so, which one?

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×

- What role for Congress is there in this process?

How should Congress organize itself to deal with a specialized personnel issue that cuts across agency lines, and therefore across committee jurisdictions?

In arriving at answers to these questions, the committee took into account several background events that have dramatically changed the situation since the first report was written. These are discussed in the next chapter.

Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 INTRODUCTION." National Research Council. 1993. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2102.
×
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This book assesses the capacity of the federal government to recruit and retain highly qualified scientists and engineers for federal service. It recommends more vigorous use of the existing Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA), as well as changes in legislation. It discusses the variety of management structures needed to support the different missions of federal agencies and identifies where organizational responsibility for implementing changes should lie.

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