Playing the Federal Numbers Game

government employeeQuestion: Exactly how many people work for the federal government? Answer: It depends.

A new study titled “The True Size of Government” puts the number at somewhere between seven and nine million. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 2 million employees
  • 3.7 million contractors
  • 1.6 million grant employees
  • 1.3 million active duty military
  • 500,000 Postal Service

Military members are not always included in such calculations. Same with the Postal Service, which does not receive congressional appropriations. The grantee and contract numbers are estimates from the Bureau of Economic Analysis

Study author Paul C. Light of New York University says an important takeaway is “the study reminds us that the nation depends on a very large blended workforce that includes many more contract and grant employees than federal civil servants. It is easy to say the civil service is too big, but it is only part of the workforce needed to faithfully execute the laws.

“The question is not whether we have too many government employees, but do we have the right blend to deliver the mission at the best price, value and performance. … This means we should be counting all the heads when we get into debates about cutting performances.”

That blended workforce actually dropped from 11.3 million to 9.1 million between 2010 and 2015, according to a separate study published by the Volcker Alliance.

Light doesn’t question the value of contract and grant workers. He does note that while cost savings are often cited for their increasing use, that is not always the case when “indirect costs such as supplies, equipment, materials and other costs of doing business enter the equation. Add overhead to the total and contract employees can cost twice as much as federal employees.”

Report: STEM Message Not Getting Through

It seems as if everyone is talking about the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) talent shortage, but the message is apparently not being heard. Randstad US conducted a study to uncover key motivations, beliefs and perspectives of STEM-related topics among kids aged 11 to 17.

The research shows that despite high interest in STEM studies and confidence in STEM skills at a younger age, interest dwindles as children grow older. Students 11 to 14 years old are 18% more likely than students aged 15 to 17 to consider math one of their favorite subjects. Fifty-six percent of young people also said knowing how STEM skills relate to the real world would make STEM classes more interesting.

“The term ‘STEM’ needs a rebrand and awareness campaign to get the next generation of talent excited about pursuing these careers,” said Alan Stukalsky, chief digital officer for Randstad North America. “Young people are self-selecting out of higher STEM education classes because they can’t see how these skills apply to different professions and employers they’re excited about. It’s a misperception and a serious economic problem, as a rapidly growing number of jobs now require STEM competencies. If we don’t find a way to guide and prepare the future workforce for these positions, we run the risk of the need for these skills escalating and the hiring gap expanding.”  

The study revealed not only a lack of students’ awareness of what types of STEM jobs exist, but also a lack of personal connection to STEM professionals and how STEM jobs are defined.

  • 52% of students say they don’t know anyone with a job in STEM, and more than 1 in 4 students (27%) say they haven’t talked to anyone about jobs in STEM.
  • Almost half (49%) of respondents say they don’t know what kind of math jobs exist and 76% report not knowing a lot about what engineers do.
  • 87% think people who study STEM work at companies like NASA; far fewer associate them with mainstream consumer brands like Instagram (40%) and Coca-Cola (26%).

Young people reported high enthusiasm for careers not explicitly defined as STEM but requiring related skills, suggesting the need for broader education as to how STEM skills can be applied in fields beyond math and science.

  • 64% of students rate creating video games for a living as very fun, while 90% rate it somewhat fun.
  • 54% of respondents think it would be very fun to earn a living working with marine life, with 89% rating it as at least somewhat fun.
  • 47% think it would be very fun to make web sites for a living, with 86% saying it would be at least somewhat fun.

Taking Care of Our Money – Not!

Living from one paycheck to the next remains common for a majority of workers – 78%, in fact, compared to 75% a year earlier. And the dilemma impacts more women (81%) than men (75%).

According to new CareerBuilder research, 38% of employees said they sometimes live paycheck-to-paycheck, 17% said they usually do and 23% said they always do.

In addition:

Having a higher salary doesn’t necessarily mean money woes are behind you, with nearly one in 10 workers making $100,000 or more (9%) saying they usually or always live paycheck-to-paycheck and 59% in that income bracket in debt. Twenty-eight percent of workers making $50,000-$99,999 usually or always live paycheck to paycheck, 70% are in debt; and 51% of those making less than $50,000 usually or always live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, 73% are in debt.

A quarter of workers (25%) have not been able to make ends meet every month in the last year, and 20% have missed payment on some smaller bills. Further, 71% of all workers say they’re in debt — up from 68% last year. While 46% say their debt is manageable, more than half of those in debt (56%) say they feel they will always be in debt. And it should be noted that 18% of all workers have reduced their 401k contribution and/or personal savings in the last year, more than a third (38%) do not participate in a 401k plan, IRA or comparable retirement plan, and 26% have not set aside any savings each month in the last year.

Less than a third of workers (32%) stick to a clearly defined budget and a slight majority (56%) save $100 or less a month.

Still, despite financial woes, there are certain things employees aren’t willing to give up. When asked what they’d absolutely not give up, regardless of financial concerns, employees cited:

  • Internet connection: 54%  
  • Mobile device (smart phone, tablet, etc.): 53%
  • Driving: 48%
  • Pets: 37%  
  • Cable: 21%  
  • Going out to eat: 19%  
  • Traveling: 17%  
  • Education: 13%  
  • Buying gifts for people: 13%  
  • Alcohol: 11%

K-12 Teacher Shortage Grows

Teacher shortages are not a new concern and the subject areas with the biggest gaps remain fairly consistent. Still, as the 2017-2018 school year was beginning, CNN had an extensive report on the challenge. Among the findings:

The Learning Policy Institute estimated that if trends continue, there could be a nationwide shortfall of 112,000 teachers by 2018.

Public schools in 48 states and the District of Columbia report teacher shortages in math for the 2017-18 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Forty-six states report shortages in special education, 43 in science and 41 in foreign languages.

Nationwide, teacher education enrollments dropped 35% between 2009 and 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

A survey at UCLA found that freshmen’s interest in teaching as a career has steadily declined over the past decade.

Dan Goldhaber, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data and Research, who studies educational trends at the University of Washington, sees two main reasons.

Math and science teachers aren’t paid enough. Salaries for U.S. secondary school teachers have largely remained the same over the past two decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And students in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) can make more in other professions than they would teaching.

Teaching in the U.S. is too demanding. About 8% of teachers leave teaching each year, with two-thirds quitting before retirement, according to the Learning Policy Institute. This is double the percentage of teachers leaving the profession in countries like Singapore and Finland.

As far as potential solutions:

  • Help students be more strategic about their teaching opportunities. When students enter teaching certification programs, let them know where the jobs are. In many parts of the country, they’ll have an easier time finding jobs to teach math or science than English.
  • Partner school districts with local college and university programs. Though the teacher shortage is rooted partly in subject areas, it’s also a matter of location. Schools in low-income areas struggle more to fill positions. “It is the kids that are oftentimes most at risk that are the ones who are likely to suffer the most,” Goldhaber said.

One way to fix that would be to pull in students from local higher-ed programs to help teach in those areas. Many may stick around for a full-time job after graduation.

  • Make teacher certification national instead of state by state.Prospective teachers must pass an exam specific to the state they want to work in. But if a teacher wants to move from, say, Pennsylvania to California, they can’t immediately apply for jobs there. By having a national certification exam, teachers would have more mobility to go where they’re needed.

Purdue, Others to Help With Micro Debt

Purdue University is one of 11 schools that formed the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) in 2014. As reported recently by Fast Company, the UIA members are planning to tackle a challenge that is preventing many students from completing their degree.

Bridget Burns, the executive director of the coalition, says that most of UIA’s school presidents realized they were doing an awful job at keeping students enrolled, particularly those who from low-income households, first generation, or students of color. “It seems like a bunch of institutions … repeating the same experiments (to fix things) over and over and in many cases making the same mistakes.”

One alarming trend: Despite receiving financial aid, roughly 4,000 seniors who have good grades may quit school because of small outstanding scholastic debt. The sums are often less than $1,000 – but in many cases, such balances make them unable to register for their next batch of classes.

UIA and its partners will spend $4 million on micro-debt forgiveness, which will be managed by in-network academic advisors to use at their discretion over the course of the next five semesters. Half of the money is coming primarily from the Gates Foundation and Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates but the other half is a school match. Because every project that UIA does is carefully vetted beforehand, all institutions agree to double whatever philanthropic amount is directed toward their campuses.

The estimated award per student is projected to be about $900, but students can’t apply; administrators, who are adhering to an internal formula designed to spot the best candidates, will identify candidates and offer the one-time surprise infusion. “We know there’s variation across the 11 (schools) but we want to find the students who are low income, on track to graduate within a year – so they’ve already got a lot of effort behind them and it’s not too far ahead – but they have some unexpected costs,” Burns says.

Those costs might be anything that could disrupt an already tight budget, from a parking ticket that went unpaid and snowballed, to car repair, or an unexpected rent or medical issue that affected someone’s prioritization for what must be repaid. For low-income students already on loans, that’s generally a dream killer.

“If we don’t help them through to the finish line, that could waste all their effort.”

The concept of micro-debt relief has already proven effective at Georgia State University, a UIA affiliate that started its own retention granting program in 2011 to try to support the 1,000 or so students that it was losing each semester of extremely small tuition balances. Georgia State’s program is open to all students, not just seniors. Historically, it has 75% of those with more than a year to go are still enrolled 12 months later, while 60% of senior recipients go on to graduate within the same year that they receive assistance.

Burns expects UIA disbursements to cover only about half of the coalition’s students in need. That’s partly because of limited funding but also necessary because it’s a wide-scale experiment. Not aiding everyone creates a sad but necessary control group, allowing future funders to better compare the power of small, emergency cash allowances for those who received them versus those who didn’t.

More broadly, however, she hopes that UIA’s investment encourages other schools to act similarly. “This signaled where they should be focusing their attention,” she says. “These are many of the most innovative universities, who are saying, ‘These are things that are worth your limited time energy and money.’ ”

Bachelors (Degrees) Dominate In This State

In the Indiana Vision 2025 Report Card released earlier this summer, Massachusetts led the way in percentage of the population with at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s not too surprising considering the prevalence of higher education institutions in the Boston area and the state’s entrepreneurial, tech-based economy.

(Indiana, by the way, was 39th in the 2015 statistics with 26.7% of resident possessing at least a four-year degree).

The update, according to a report from the independent Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center:

Half of all workers in Massachusetts held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016, marking the first time any U.S. state has reached that educational threshold.

The same analysis points to a growing wage chasm in the state, with the college-educated earning on average 99% – or nearly double – the wages of those in the labor force with only a high school education. That difference, often referred to as the “college wage premium,” was 56.6% across the entire nation in 2016.

In Massachusetts, 50.2% of individuals participating in the state’s labor force had attained at minimum a four-year degree from a college or university in 2016. The next highest states were New Jersey (45.2%), New York (43.7%), Maryland (43%) and Connecticut (42.7%), according to the Current Population Survey data. The U.S. average was 35.5% in 2016.

The numbers point to a dramatic shift in recent decades. In 1979, only about 20% of the Massachusetts labor force had bachelor’s degrees, and the college wage premium was 50%.

College Pays Off Despite Recession

Those who graduated from college in 2008 often say it wasn’t the best time to be entering the working world. As graduates were searching for those first jobs, the economy was shedding them and the world was plunging into recession. If those prospects weren’t dire enough, many of those graduates were also carrying debt from student loans.

Those millennials, however unlucky, fared better than their non-college-educated counterparts, though.

A new longitudinal study from the National Center for Education Statistics – the primary collector of student data on the federal level – found these results by taking a sample of students who were high school sophomores in the 2001-02 academic year and tracking them through 2012. The nationally representative sample was measured for a variety of factors – co-habiting, marriage, unemployment, underemployment, student debt carried – but the economic breakdown in those categories between those who attained a postsecondary degree and those who didn’t is especially telling.

Even though the timing of graduating might not have been ideal, attaining a four-year degree was still a good economic move for these millennials, on average, according to the report, which attempted to control for outside factors in its economic modeling. Put simply, even in the face of a recession, going to college still paid off.

“Individuals with less education had higher unemployment rates, while those with more education had higher employment rates and were more likely to be working full-time,” the report stated.

By 2012, 78% of those who had earned a bachelor’s degree were working more than 35 hours a week. Eleven percent were working fewer than 35 hours, 5% were unemployed and 6% were out of the labor force.

Of the members of the cohort who only had high school degrees, 64% were employed 35 hours or more a week, with 12% working fewer than 35 hours – similar to the number of those with a bachelor’s degree – and 14% and 10% were unemployed and out of the labor force, respectively.

In addition to employment, earning power was also differentiated along educational lines. Those surveyed who had a bachelor’s degree earned, on average, $17 an hour. Those surveyed with a high school diploma earned, on average, $13.

The study notes that it’s still early to be drawing overly expansive conclusions from its data.

“It is important to note that this section only addresses cohort members’ early career and labor market outcomes,” it reads. “At age 25-26, many individuals are just starting their careers; some are still enrolled in undergraduate or graduate studies; and others will return to school for additional training later in their careers.”

Still, as the study notes, early labor data is often correlated with later outcomes.

What To Do About Negative References

Reference checking is often viewed as a routine matter. But not for the company or the job seeker when certain information is shared.

Allison & Taylor, a company engaged in the reference business for more than 30 years, offers the following:

It’s an all-to familiar scenario – a job seeker with strong employment credentials has interviewed well, and received positive feedback from a prospective employer.  After being asked to provide a list of references, communications suddenly stop; no explanation is provided, and the job seeker’s attempts to follow up elicit a vague “we decided to go in a different direction” statement.

What is happening here?

While there may be multiple reasons why a prospective employer has suddenly lost interest, one possibility is that a reference they’ve contacted has offered negative commentary about the job seeker.  When this happens, the employer begins to see the job seeker as an employment risk, and it’s highly likely that the entire process will stutter to a stop.

The employment process can be tricky, and there are three common ways that an unfavorable reference can derail even the most promising job prospect:

  1. The Supervisor Dilemma – A potential employer will often ask, “May we contact your former supervisor?”  If they are told “no”, it sends up a red flag and makes the employer wonder what a job seeker has to hide.  If the contact is permitted, a job seeker runs the risk that the reference may offer some negative feedback – supervisors often give a mix of favorable and unfavorable commentary about their former subordinates.    
  2. HR’s Influence – Human resources, which most former employees feel is a “safe” reference bet, can actually be quite problematic.  While company policy may not allow them to provide damaging commentary, they may indicate that the employee is not eligible for rehire or suggest that the separation was due to involuntary, unfavorable circumstances.  
  3. “Do Not Hire” – Still another possibility is that a job seeker is on a former employer’s “do not hire” list.  This could be due to any number of reasons, including a failed background check, minor corporate infractions or resume fraud. While most U.S. hiring managers rarely admit that they keep such records, they do exist.

Allison & Taylor reports that approximately half of all reference checks it conducts reveal negative input from the reference.

Job Losses Have Lasting Impact

The ripple effects of large-scale job losses linger for years and can keep adolescents from attending college later in life, according to new research carrying significant ramifications for policy makers, college recruiters and counselors.

Poor middle school and high school students who live through major job losses in their region attend college at significantly lower rates when they are 19 years old, according to new research published in the journal Science. A 7% state job loss when a student is an adolescent is tied to a 20% decline in likelihood that the poorest young people will attend college.

Local job losses hurt adolescent mental health, researchers found. Job losses also cut academic performance. The negative impacts are not limited to children from families where parents lost jobs – they extend to those who witness their friends, neighbors and others in the community being affected by layoffs.

Researchers argue that large-scale job losses are not simply economic events touching directly affected families. They are community-level traumas, said Elizabeth O. Ananat, an associate professor of public policy studies and economics at Duke University who is one of the lead authors of the paper appearing in Science.

“Worse mental health and worse test scores, they are all going to be blows to you that knock you off the path,” Ananat said. “That was a difficult path to begin with.”

In the economic theory, a student may have watched their father lose his job when a mine closed. Or they watched a friend’s mother be laid off when the local factory downsized. Those students should then be drawn to a college education because of the promise of larger financial returns and more stable employment in the newly developing knowledge economy.

In other words, economic theory has tended to focus on the idea that a shrinking pool of blue-collar jobs increases the relative return on investment of a college education. But it’s not working that way in the real world.

“Economists tend to think about it as a change in relative prices – the return changes,” Ananat said. “They miss the fact that it’s an emotional blow, like another kind of community trauma would be.”

Report: Competency Focus Mostly on Adults

Three states considered bills that would have enacted competency-based education policies in 2016 and five considered such bills in 2017, according to a new report from the Education Commission of the States.

A number of states (including New Hampshire) and districts (including Chicago) are using or contemplating competency-based learning in K-12 schools. A group of prestigious private high schools recently began pushing for colleges to accept competency-based high school transcripts, which highlight students’ skills and accomplishments instead of more-traditional grades.

But the state legislatures seem to mostly be contemplating how to use competency-based education to serve adults. Lexi Anderson, the report’s author, notes that states’ competency-based education bills mostly target the growing population of people over 25 who are enrolled in postsecondary education.

“[C]ompetency-based education serves to award credit/degrees to students for meeting specific skill competencies agreed upon by faculty, industry leaders, and workforce representatives,” she writes. “This innovative delivery model could create greater access to postsecondary education for returning adults, low-income students, and working adults needing additional skills.”