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Strategic Human Capital Management

A top-notch workforce is the foundation of a high-performing government, especially in an era of complex national issues and limited resources with which to resolve them.

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Closing Critical Skills Gaps are Key to Addressing Federal Workforce Challenges

Federal agencies are called upon to address a range of complex and evolving national issues, such as natural disasters, homeland security, and economic stability, that require a range of knowledge and expertise. However, on-going and emerging critical skills gaps are eroding the ability of agencies to carry out their vital missions. Moreover, retirements could lead to additional shortages of leadership and institutional knowledge. As shown in figure 1, nearly 30 percent of the federal workforce on board at the end of fiscal year 2011 will be eligible to retire by 2016. At some agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the percentage of employees eligible to retire is even higher. The government’s leadership and management ranks also face potentially high levels of retirement with around 58 percent of senior executives and 45 percent of GS-15s becoming eligible to retire during this time period. Likewise, certain occupations such as air traffic controllers face potentially large numbers of retirements, with around 46 percent becoming eligible to retire by 2016. We identified strategic human capital management as a high risk area because for agencies to cost-effectively carry out their missions and respond to emerging challenges, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and individual agencies will need to take a strategic and efficient approach to acquiring, developing, and retaining individuals with needed skills.

Figure 1: Agencies are in the Midst of a Potential Retirement Wave

Going forward it will be critical for agencies to identify and address current and emerging critical skill gaps that could undermine their ability to meet their missions. Key to meeting these challenges will be

  • Sustained leadership
    • OPM can assist in—and, as appropriate, require—the building of more robust human capital infrastructure in agencies.
    • Agency leaders must embrace reforms and integrate their human capital efforts into their agencies’ core planning and business activities.
    • Agency leaders need to develop workforce plans, implement recruitment and retention strategies and measure their effects.
  • Robust strategic human capital planning
    • Agencies need to integrate human capital planning with broader organizational strategic planning involving top management, employees, and other stakeholders.
    • Agencies should examine retirements and other forms of turnover, with an eye toward strengthening both current and future organizational capacity.
  • Effective talent management
    • Agencies’ talent management strategies must be responsive to changing applicant and workforce needs and expectations; and agencies must tailor recruitment, retention, training, workforce flexibilities, and other strategies to address any identified skills gaps.
    • Agency training and development programs should be part of an overall management strategy and include processes to assess and ensure the training’s effectiveness.
  • Results-oriented cultures
    • Agencies need to have a performance management system that creates a “line of sight” showing how unit and individual performance can contribute to overall organizational goals.
    • Agencies need to foster a work environment in which people are enabled and motivated to contribute to continuous learning and improvement, as well as mission accomplishment.

Skills Gaps in Selected Critical Occupations

  • Cybersecurity
    • Threats to federal information technology (IT) infrastructure and systems continue to grow in number and sophistication. The ability to make federal IT secure depends on the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the federal and contractor workforces that implement these systems. While several governmentwide initiatives have begun to enhance the federal cybersecurity workforce, better planning and coordination are needed.
    • GAO-12-8
  • Foreign language capabilities
    • Agencies, such as the Department of State, have persistent shortages of staff with critical language skills. We have reported that these skills gaps put diplomatic readiness at risk and could hinder U.S. overseas operations.
    • GAO-10-91
    • GAO-09-955
  • Acquisition management
    • The shortage of trained acquisition personnel impedes the ability of agencies such as the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to oversee and manage contracts that have become more expensive and increasingly complex. As a result, we have found that the federal government is at risk for significant overcharges and wasteful spending.
    • GAO-09-30
    • GAO-09-342
    • GAO-07-1098T
  • Oil and gas management
    • The Department of Interior has faced persistent challenges in hiring and retaining qualified staff in key oil and gas engineering and inspection positions and has not developed a strategic workforce plan that outlines specific strategies to address these challenges. Interior agreed with our recommendation to develop a strategic workforce plan that determines the critical skills and competencies that will be needed to achieve programmatic results and to develop strategies to address critical skills gaps.
    • GAO-12-423
  • Veterinarians
    • At agencies such as the Food Safety and Inspection Service, there is a growing shortage of veterinarians who oversee the slaughter and handling of livestock and poultry, which has the potential to place human health, the economy, and our nation's food supply at risk. We recommended that agencies with food safety responsibilities assess their veterinarian workforces to identify current and future workforce needs, while also taking into consideration training and employee development needs.
    • GAO-09-178
  • FAA technician workforce
    • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lacks a longer-term strategy to address the hundreds of technician retirements projected through 2020 and has just begun to assess the skills and competencies its technician workforce will need to maintain its Next Generation technologies. We have reported that safe and efficient air travel depends on FAA having technicians with the right skills now and in the future.
    • GAO-11-91

Toolkit for Improving Human Capital Management Practices

We have identified various leading practices that federal agencies and other organizations can use to help transform their human capital activities.

  • Strategic workforce planning
  • Performance management
  • Recruiting and hiring
  • Training
  • Diversity
Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

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