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I've been browsing the GAO report on Foreign Service staffing gaps, which is discussed by Domani Spero today, and particularly the portion on Civil Service to Foreign Service conversions. She noted the comically insufficient extent of those conversions:
State has 10,490 Civil Service employees and was only able to convert four employees to the Foreign Service. That’s like what – 0.03813 percent conversion rate to help bridge the gap? That’s not going to make any dent whatsoever.
Indeed. According to the GAO report, State "opened" only 88 CS employees to conversion in 2011, of which a mere 26 applied. Those 26 were winnowed down to 7 who were given the opportunity to convert, only four of whom were actually converted. With numbers like those, something tells me State really isn't all that into the whole idea of Civil Service conversion.
However, State did much better with temporary appointments. Again according to the GAO report, 159 Civil Service employees were placed in Limited Non-Career Appointments (LNAs) to overseas FS positions from 2009 to 2011. Those appointments are for periods of up to five years, most of them were made at the mid-level, and most of them were for hard-to-fill positions.
The LNA route looks like an obvious feeder track for CS-to-FS conversions. There are some obstacles, particularly the requirement that affected bureaus - those losing CS employees - must guarantee that applicants will be placed into permanent positions within the same bureau when they return from their overseas assignments. "This requirement creates some reluctance on the part of bureaus to approve applications for overseas assignments" the GAO report says. I suppose it would.
Speaking as a CS employee myself, I wouldn't want to be re-employed in any bureau that would agree to lose me for two, three, or five years. Oh, I know co-workers who have done it, but - and this is purely my own observation, so it is likely to be skewed and unrepresentative - they rarely returned to the losing bureau, or at least not to the same Branch, Division, or Office. Their LNA tours were a change of pace, or a developmental opportunity, or a spacer in between two different Civil Service jobs, but rarely were they a step toward permanent conversion.
Don't get me wrong, temporary appointments can be very good gigs. I know of a CS employee in my own pay grade who did a tour as the Chief of Mission at a very small overseas post. I could possibly be persuaded to give up my Rosslyn cubicle for that kind of job.
So, State is looking to fill mid-level FS staffing gaps, and it has a non-negligible number of CS employees who could fill them, i.e., those who have previously taken temporary appointments and have the two years in FS positions abroad in the past six years that is required to qualify for conversion. The question is, why don't many more of those former LNA guys apply to convert?
Maybe I'm missing something in the Byzantine regulations that govern conversions, but I think the reason is obvious. State hires for FS positions only at the entry pay grades, which max out at the FP-04 level. That means the CS employees who are most likely to be conversion candidates would take a big pay cut, even if there were some flexibility as to the exact step within that pay grade at which a converted employee might enter.
By "big" I mean about 50 percent, assuming the conversion candidate is a GS-13 pay grade employee who has been around ten or more years.
Even that temporary Chief of Mission job would lose its appeal if I had to take such a severe financial haircut to convert.