Written by Christine Boyette

A former boss of mine used to say that when you hire a government civilian, “you’ve got what you’ve got and you’re stuck with them.” In 2011, a USA Today analysis of the job security of Federal employees found many federal employees were more likely to die than get fired from their jobs with the government.[i] With job security for federal employees over 99%, my old boss’ comment is not far from the truth. When an organization treats all employees the same, the highest performers and those with the most desirable skills tend to leave first.

Over the last few years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been hit hard by the Budget Control Act, forcing reductions in their military force structure as well as their civilian workforce. Personnel cuts to civilian workforces are especially difficult for DoD Components to manage. A majority of the DoD civilian workforce is represented by employment unions, which strongly oppose any reductions that do not protect seniority. Additionally, legal and policy restrictions make targeted reductions extremely challenging. Therefore, most leaders within the Department rely on attrition by default to accomplish workforce reductions. Attrition gradually reduces the size of a workforce by not replacing personnel lost through resignations, transfers or retirements. In an attrition environment all employees are treated equally without regard to the value of their performance or skill.

Benefits of Attrition Strategy:

  • Not always a bad way to meet an organization’s reduction goals
  • Limits potential employee morale issues
  • Gives workers a choice in who leaves
  • Avoids legal hassles with unions or individual employees
  • Organizations can use incentives to expedite attrition
  • Accelerating retirement losses can pave the way for increased career development within mid-career employees

DoD has used normal and incentivized attrition as their primary workforce-shaping tool for many years. While expeditious on a local level, this strategy does not support the Department’s strategic goals and is leaving major capability gaps in areas that can least afford them. This sentiment was highlighted in a 2012 GAO report that documented DoD’s history of civilian workforce downsizing problems and the resulting “significant imbalances in terms of shape, skills and retirement eligibility.”[ii]

Problems with Attrition Strategy

  • Organization’s best people are the ones who tend to leave
  • May not meet short-term reduction goals
  • Attrition is passive and not a traceable or repeatable process
  • Risk of downsizing the wrong skills
  • Doesn’t align workforce with organizational strategy and mission
  • Often accompanied by hiring freeze, leaving irreplaceable skill gaps

Employees with the highest skills and competencies, the ones who are the best leaders and the quickest learners, are the same individuals who can easily move to other employment opportunities. During workforce reductions, especially when caused by external forces (e.g., budget cuts), it’s critical for an organization to align their workforce needs with their mission, vision and strategic goals.

The military services do an excellent job analyzing military needs in great detail. They can determine the number of airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines they need in each military specialty down to the grade level. However, the presence of unions and the lack of a rigorous advancement structure make it difficult for DoD Components to quantify their needs when it comes to DoD civilians, which is why strategic workforce planning is so important.

Strategic workforce planning helps an organization define and optimize their workforce to execute the organization’s strategy.

  • Allows organizations to account for current and future known factors
  • Helps organizations prepare and plan for unknown factors

DoD currently has a legislative requirement to develop a biennial Strategic Workforce Plan for its civilian workforce.[iii] However, this effort has not been fully embraced by the Military Departments or DoD’s numerous Agencies and Activities. All DoD Components must integrate strategic workforce planning into their organization’s planning and programming efforts within their Components to reap its true benefits. Attrition as a workforce planning strategy is continuing to deliver subpar capabilities causing inefficiencies in the workforce.

The DoD civilian workforce must become more agile and responsive to meet the continually changing demands and emerging threats faced by the Department and the Nation. Relying on attrition as the primary method to shape the civilian workforce sabotages DoD’s efforts to deliver the best possible workforce to execute their mission. Developing and executing a strategic workforce plan would allow DoD Components to utilize multiple force shaping tools to achieve a future-focused civilian workforce aligned with the Department’s missions and strategic priorities.

[i] Some federal workers more likely to die than lose jobs; Dennis Cauchon, USA Today, July 19, 2011; http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2011-07-18-fderal-job-security_n.htm

[ii] US Government Accountability Office Report 12-962T: DoD Civilian Workforce: Observations on DoD’s Efforts to Plan for Civilians Workforce Requirements; July 26, 2012;

[iii] Biennial strategic workforce plan; Section 115b, Title 10 U.S.C.