What else is in the blend?

A blended workforce is more than contractors, embedded or otherwise.

A blended workforce schematic in "The Blended Workforce: Maximizing Agility through Nonstandard Work Arrangements," a 2005 report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, describes a central core of full-time, on-site agency employees. In a ring surrounding them, there are people working under nonstandard or alternative conditions, including contractors working off-site and embedded on-site, in addition to consultants; part-time, temporary and seasonal workers; and remote agency employees.

Use of the different employment models gives organizations flexibility in adapting to different staffing demands, said the report's co-authors, James Thompson and Sharon Mastracci, professors in the graduate program in public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Some agencies, such as the Forest Service and the Internal Revenue Service, regularly employ workers under such alternative conditions, Thompson said.

The Forest Service's need for seasonal workers is governed by the severity of the forest fire season, but in other cases, information technology is reducing agencies' need for temporary workers.

"The IRS uses a lot of seasonal workers during tax-filing season," Thompson said. But with more people filing electronically, the agency "doesn't need as many people in a warehouse opening paper envelopes."

Most agencies do not avail themselves of the flexibility that alternative arrangements offer. Their reasons vary.

The Transportation Security Administration has made extensive use of part-time employees, Thompson said. Although the practice "worked great in nonmetropolitan agencies, [the agency] had a huge problem in Chicago because of distance and traffic; people felt it just wasn't worth the commute" to work for part-time wages, he said.

"It gets complicated for agencies," he said, "because they live under federal full-time-employee ceilings." Because a part-time employee counts toward the FTE total, he said, "it's hard for them to justify hiring a part-timer when they could get a full-time employee."

Furthermore, agencies often are at their FTE ceilings, he said, "and with their legacy workforce in place, they're not going to lay them off in order to hire someone else."

Potential nonstandard work arrangement employees may be reluctant to take jobs under less than full-time conditions.

"Especially in today's uncertain fiscal environment, agencies are concentrating on protecting their core employees, but people in the ring are vulnerable," Thompson said. "They're easier to let go."

The first baby boomers will reach 65 in 2011, and then the country will see an age tsunami, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Another new study, this one from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging, finds that "baby boomers are expecting to work longer, perhaps presaging a reversal in the century-long trend toward earlier retirement. Compared with 1992, in 2004, a substantially larger proportion of people in their early to mid-50s expected to work after 65."

Such trends may give agencies a little breathing space, but inevitably the boomers will retire, taking with them irreplaceable institutional knowledge. A frequently recommended tactic is to rehire them as part of the alternative workforce. Such arrangements could include part-time work, on-call availability, consulting or any number of other structures that target agency needs.

Some pre-seniors, those now between 55 and 60, "are already retiring or semiretiring by taking such 'bridge jobs' on a path toward less work," said William Frey, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of the report "Mapping the Growth of Older America: Seniors and Boomers in the Early 21st Century."

The match may seem one made, if not in heaven, at least in a workforce management Eden. But it's a difficult one to implement in government, Thompson said. Government restrictions against double dipping constrain agencies from rehiring retired workers, he said.

Such retired workers are more likely to be hired by contractors and show up as part of the embedded workforce, although "that just ends up costing government more in the long term," Thompson said.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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