U.S. EPA looks set to achieve its goal of having 15,000 employees working at the agency.
In an interview with Greenwire, Karl Brooks, EPA's acting assistant administrator for administration and resources management -- essentially the agency's human resources chief -- said the agency has met its hiring goal, when including all the parts of the agency's hiring "pipeline."
"If you take the number of people who are, you might say, sitting in chairs right now working at EPA and then you add to them the candidates who have been made offers and have accepted offers but don't yet have start dates when they walk in the door to sit down and begin to work and then add the different other pieces of the pipeline, we essentially are at 15,000," Brooks said.
In figures provided by EPA, as of Dec. 7, the agency has 14,667 "on-boards," or employees who are currently working for the agency. An additional 174 people have been hired by EPA but have not yet reported to work, while 79 "non-competitive appointments" -- hires from special classified applicants such as veterans, those with disabilities and returning Peace Corps volunteers -- are pending. Finally, 164 certificates have been issued to managers to make a hire from a list of qualified applicants.
Together, that would bring EPA's staff level to 15,084 employees, once all applicants make it through the process.
Nevertheless, Brooks warned that staff levels could dip again, especially considering several people decided during the holidays to retire.
"That number of people working changes each day as people leave the agency through retirement," Brooks said. "That number that is about 15,000 now with on-boards plus pipeline, it may be less than 15,000 just a couple of weeks from now due to retirements."
Asked why EPA went on the hiring push, Brooks -- head of the agency's Region 7 office before taking on the administration job -- said the agency needed to replenish its staff after going through buyout rounds with its more senior employees in prior years.
"It had more to do with a commitment that we had made to [the Office of Personnel Management] and [the Office of Management and Budget] that we would follow an early retirement with a hiring initiative to replace people who had departed at lower grades and therefore lower salary, which would be fiscally prudent because we know our budget picture is going to be tight going ahead," Brooks said.
EPA had a top-heavy payroll with numerous longtime employees who had reached the senior ranks at the agency. As part of the hiring push, Brooks noted that EPA "needed to keep refreshing the skills and rebalancing the skill grades at the agency."
"The commitment we made to go forward with that was to fill the agency back up with new skills, newer grades, and we did that, too. So the agency looks different in its skill grade mix than it did two years ago," Brooks said.
EPA offered two buyout rounds to its employees -- one in fiscal 2013 and the other in fiscal 2014 -- that resulted in 900 employees taking the early retirement offer from the agency. Further, the agency has offered employees "phased retirement," which allows EPA workers who plan to retire to work part time as they mentor younger employees on the job.
"We frankly wanted to do this to try to get a lot of good mentoring experiences and to give our more senior employees a chance to step out in a graduated way, not just one day they're here, the next day they're gone," Brooks said.
EPA was looking to hire employees with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. In addition, the agency wanted to add more diversity to its workforce and reached out to places including historically black colleges and universities, according to Brooks.
"We worked really hard to try to do recruitment and outreach in places that we normally hadn't done it over the last some number of years for EPA, and we will continue to do even more of that," Brooks said. "The intersection between STEM jobs and outreach and diversity is one of the main challenges that my office has."
EPA's hiring push has come under scrutiny on Capitol Hill (E&ENews PM, Sept. 18). The EPA inspector general also warned the agency earlier this year to be careful as it sought to hire more and more staff (Greenwire, July 14).
The agency HR chief said EPA has heeded the IG's advice.
"I think we followed that guidance from the IG pretty well," Brooks said.
The agency is now expected to scale back on bringing on new employees. Brooks said EPA is not done with hiring but noted the agency's rate of hiring should slow in the coming year.
"Even though I can't predict the future, I suspect that the rate of hiring of fiscal 2016 will be a little bit different, a little bit lower than the final months of fiscal 2015," Brooks said.
'New blood will be good'
Observers of EPA said its hiring push will help the agency by bringing in younger employees with new skills.
"I think there was an effort here to reduce payroll, to weight it to more junior people than to senior people. I applaud that because it makes the federal dollar go further," said Bob Sussman, once EPA's deputy administrator during the Clinton administration. "New blood will be good for the agency."
Even at 15,000 employees, EPA is not close to its prior staffing levels, when it once had 18,000 people on board.
"There has been a significant downsizing of the EPA workforce, even during the Obama administration," said Sussman, also a former senior policy adviser to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "EPA, when compared to previous levels, is still understaffed."
Nevertheless, EPA's initiative to bring on new employees has helped a younger generation get its foot in the door.
"It actually is kind of exciting as an old-timer to see all these fresh, young faces who are just so eager and excited to have a job at the EPA," said Karen Kellen, president of AFGE Council 238, the union's national chapter that represents EPA workers. "It's still a great place to work because you get to do something you believe in."
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