Why I (Still) Work Here

The author recounts his love for his federal career while also addressing challenges that federal employees face.

Every month, my organization picks one of our 26,000 outstanding, dedicated, or just plain interesting employees to profile in our internal newsletter. I took pride of place in the August 2016 “Why I Work Here” feature, along with a circa 1985 photo of me and this quote:

I still love the mission and the people! We have the best folks in the Navy and working with them and seeing their dedication makes the hours pass by.

My love for the mission and people remains undiminished even as many other aspects of federal service have changed since I joined the predecessor organization of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Newport in 1985.

Competition for highly skilled personnel is growing, and the pace of technology change – coupled with increasingly complex systems – means we need to hire the best, and get the most out of the people that we hire.

At the same time, there are indications that public perceptions of the federal government and workforce have declined, making us a less attractive employer and contributing to lower levels of job satisfaction among our people. Pay and hiring freezes, budget battles, and the latest, record-setting partial government shutdown have further affected workforce morale and made public service appear less appealing as a career.

So what do we do?

In some respects, we at the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Naval Surface and Undersea Warfare Centers are in a unique position. The Department of Defense is fully funded through fiscal year 2019, and as a working capital fund activity, we do not receive direct congressional appropriations.

While the partial government shutdown had an indirect impact on us, we were able to continue operating in support of the Navy fleet. Our mission is to steward the Navy’s intellectual knowledge base for our three navies – today’s, tomorrow’s and the future’s. The Warfare Centers are our people.

People are Mission-Critical

While our unique facilities can be duplicated at a significant cost, what can never be replicated are the people and their knowledge built over hundreds of years. Their collective corporate knowledge of the systems used by our Navy/Marine Corps team, the lessons learned in years of acquisition support, and what we should be investing in for science and technology/innovation for our future Navy is irreplaceable.

So is their commitment, and their willingness to go “above and beyond” to respond to urgent fleet needs around the globe, 27/4. They truly are the Navy’s technical insurance policy.

They also look out for one another, like the folks at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Division, Panama City who formed the “North Lagoon Navy” volunteer group in the wake of Hurricane Michael to assist more than 155 local families, perform wellness checks for over 220 people, and deliver supplies to those in need. And they did this while their own Navy installation was closed to all but essential personnel.

Attracting New Talent is a Challenge

For us, and for our colleagues across the federal government, attracting enthusiastic, top talent like this is a mission-critical challenge. 

We continue to leverage every available option to reach people with both traditional and non-traditional skill sets. We’re fortunate that as scientific and technology reinvention laboratories we can use a pay-for-contribution system specifically designed to attract, reward, and retain high-performing employees, and we have unique authorities to shape our workforce with more flexibility than most government organizations.

We’ve made significant inroads toward recruiting and hiring an adaptable and skilled workforce to support today’s work while building a foundation for the technologies of the future.

New Ways to Recruit Talent

It’s time that we began to discuss possible changes that would enable us to better seek and secure “non-traditional” skills.

A number of federal agencies, including the Navy and the Department of Homeland Security, are aggressively looking for new ways to recruit and pay cybersecurity professionals, for instance. Some of the options being weighed, such as hiring skill sets rather than technical degrees, certainly could be useful in our efforts to harness the brightest minds in novel and constructive partnerships.

We’re also ensuring that personnel already on board get training and experience in a variety of skills and in cross-disciplinary collaborative teams, which is helping us to accelerate employee learning and product delivery timelines.

We’re taking an unflinching look at the environment in which our people work, and are pursuing cultural and institutional changes that will allow diversity and inclusion to thrive. To that end, we began a Leadership in a Diverse Environment initiative in 2017 to empower attendees of training events to act as change agents and share the knowledge they acquired to help others at their commands achieve their visions and goals.

This initiative, and our participation in NAVSEA’s Inclusion and Engagement Council, are methods to train our people as well as to identify barriers to full inclusion, which is mission critical in our battle for talent.

Recruiting Efforts Going Forward

We cannot leave any stone unturned to attract, train, and retain the very best workforce America can put forward. If we do not, we could wind up with a one-dimensional workforce that cannot think outside of the box at a time when we need innovators more than ever.

As individuals, we can boost the reputation of federal service through leadership and engagement. Leadership happens at every level, which you might think is easy for a member of the Senior Executive Service to say.

But that’s where engagement comes in, because it’s imperative that discussions – even difficult ones – take place up the chain as well as down.

It’s also important that as a bureaucracy, we move the needle from an environment in which the default is “No, but …” to “Yes, if ….” Bureaucracies aren’t known for being particularly flexible, but we need to strike a better balance between compliance and acceptable risk, so leaders at all levels are allowed to “fail forward” in a risk-managed environment.   

I understand that there will always be peaks and valleys in our jobs, through no fault of our own.

But I also believe that we all have a role in creating the kind of environment that is productive, fulfilling, and challenging in all the right ways. As federal employees, we have a unique responsibility for the stewardship of federal resources, and even during those times where we may feel we are in a deep valley, we draw on our sense of responsibility and patriotic duty to do what’s right. 

People like those in the “North Lagoon Navy,” with their willingness to go above and beyond in service to their country and fellow Americans, are indeed the reason why I still work here.

Donald F. McCormack is executive director of the Naval Surface and Undersea Warfare Centers with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Newport, R.I. He started his career as an engineer at the predecessor of Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Division Newport, in 1985.