Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Foreign Service Conversion - All About The Benjamins

Seeking mid-level employees willing to take new
jobs for entry-level pay. Inquire within.

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.


Unknown said...

"Haircut." [with that kind of financial rape...] Do ya think people will be getting styled more often than every 10-12 weeks at the White Flint Hair-Cuttery: $12 per visit?

Anonymous said...

TSB: That was a great piece by Domini Spero...even I could understand it! I would suggest that yesterday's one by "A Daring Adventure" goes a long way towards adding context to the problem.

She describes a family shredding machine very well. gwb

jc said...

TSB: It's not all about the Benjamins.

(Subject to availability of slots) conversions are made at the equivalent grade. So that GS 13 converts as an FS 3.

Since previous overseas experience is required, the LNA route is the only feeder track for mid-level CS to FS conversions. One can switch at the entry level through the Mustang program or by taking the FSWE, but those would be considered "entry" rather than "conversion".

I'm also surprised that there aren't more applicants.

Note, however, that the reference is to "88 FS Generalist positions open to conversion" is not/not a reference to 88 employees. Rather, it is a reference to the number of FS jobs the Department is willing to fill, broken down by cone and grade (E.G. 6 FS03 PD officers; five FS02 Econ officers, etc.) Those 88 slots could be filled by CS employees, but they could also be filled by FS generalists who want to change their cone; or by FS Specialists who want to become generalists. (In theory there could be even more changes as some would cancel each other out.)

So why don't more people apply? Some people don't for personal reasons: serving overseas shows them how much they enjoy living in DC; family reasons; lack of interest in world wide availability.

It's a long slow process and some people just move on with their lives.

I suspect that the success ratios of 3/30 and 4/26 may have something to do with it also.

Anonymous said...

TSB: The WH says "violence is not the answer" in Syria. British foreign sec. condemns the bombing that wipes out Assad's inner circle. I'd say in a civil war where one side has all the heavy weapons and does most of the killing of civilians violence is the only answer. And don't these super powers love "targeted killings" of terrorists.. I mean reformers? This is a lot like when they decapitated our CIA team in Afghanistan. I notice it's not getting much coverage in USA. gwb

TSB said...

jc: Thanks for your comment. Regarding the 88 positions, I realized I had ineptly worded that after I'd published the post and shut down my laptop, but by then it was too late and I was too tired to go back in and correct it.

I'm glad convert-ees can enter at a higher step. One of my former co-workers who converted from a GS-13 position couldn't get a salary match, but he was undeterred since he really, really, wanted to join the Foreign Service. He might not have done that after rising higher up the 13 pay scale, however.

My sense is that most of the LNA guys I've known were simply looking for a temporary thing and not interested in conversion. Most of them were former military, or otherwise well acquainted with overseas life. Family situations probably account for the low level of interest in applying for conversion.

I'm curious about who exactly it is who is applying, since I noticed that many of them can't pass the writing test. That's an odd thing to fail after coming that far in the process.

TSB said...

GWB: Today's attack was quite the strategic move, taking out the key regime members responsible for suppressing the rebels. You just know they had an insider, which reminds me - I think twenty-two Syrian Generals have now defected. This is the first time I think the regime will actually fall.

After it does, then, I'm sure, the Alewites and their Christian allies will become the ones being massacred. I don't welcome any post-regime regime.

TSB said...


Thanks for your comment. $12 a visit? I'm so cash poor now that I cut my own hair at home!

Anonymous said...

TSB: The requirements of political correctness produced a Reuters update: the “White House says violence is not the answer in Syria but attack on Assad’s inner circle shows “window is closing.” White House says international community needs to act in a unified way.” (Our Way!)
Wow, 22 generals! That is a truckload! gwb

Anonymous said...

TSB: It was close but funding for the Army bass fishing team was saved thanks to a huge lobbying effort by Nascar (which gets most of the money). Congress clearly feels it would be un-patriotic to cut military funding in an election year! gwb


TSB said...

GWB: That's great news about the bass tournaments. People laugh now, but wait until the Georgia ANG sneaks across the Persian Gulf in a thousand bass boats and sweeps the mines from the Straits of Hormuz. Who'll be laughing then?

Anonymous said...

Fer Shurr TSB! $55 million is a small price to pay for the bubba vote, energy security and a secret weapon! I hope Texas names their 1st boat the Lil George "W". gwb

Consul-At-Arms said...

Talking about me again, TSB?

Seriously, as a GS-13, step 3, I lost 17k in salary by joining the Foreign Service, right off the bat.

And to add insult-to-injury, once you start your initial training you lose DC locality pay AND you don't qualify for TDY pay (because you're a local hire).

I've subsequently made that up by being promoted a couple times; it's been generally a great experience, and I like to think I've done some good along the way.

Still, I never look at the GS pay scale because if I did the math about how much money I lost by not staying in Civil Service and not getting those regular step increases all these years, it would only depress me.

Of course, if I can manage another promotion (or two) it'll probably even things out in terms of my lifetime earnings.

TSB said...

CAA: Losing locality pay on top of base pay, that's a double penalty! But you didn't convert, right? You entered by the traditional route? I was thinking of a management officer in OBO who converted after doing an LNA tour in Bangui. But your financial loss was actually much worse!

Anonymous said...

TSB: Bet you didn't know, Harry Truman actually got the B-29 cancelled because they couldn't solve the problems with engines constantly catching on fire. Of course he didn't know they were essential for delivering the A-Bomb.

Some DC lawyer intervened with FDR and got the decision reversed and the whole project handed to the air force. They also couldn't land a bomb anywhere near a target from high altitude so Curtis LeMay came up with the low altitude "magnesium goop" incendiary idea with the help of HJ Kaiser! Amazing facts from the book. gwb

Consul-At-Arms said...

@TSB: Yes, the traditional route of examinations, &tc. At the time, they were also doing some "pilot" program stuff where qualified prior civil and military service folks were able to bypass the written exam and proceed directly to the oral exam: those were the days of the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (DRI).

We're in the middle of a "3.0" of that, currently.

TSB said...

CAA: Thanks. That sort of pilot program sounds like it would be promising today, however, I'm assuming there must be a lot of quiet resistance to filling mid-level gaps through any kind of direct hiring.

Consul-At-Arms said...

If this were a shortage of military officers, you'd see increased and faster promotions from the entry-level grades (and within the mid-grade ranks) as well as, possibly, some "direct commissioning" of _qualified_ persons directly into the mid-grades.

But HR is its own little world, and the less said of the OIG, the better.

Anonymous said...

This is a good article. I am currently a FS specialist. I have accepted a CS job as a GS13, step 1. The FS life is attractive, but there are some harsh realities of working with State. The lack of leadership, meaning people not willing to make a decision and unclear lines of communication/command, are the beginning. Also, living in difficult, war torn, unsafe, countries. It is alright if you are single, but places extreme stress on a family. My observation is that State is not very supportive of families. And the bidding process is very competitive and stressful. Everyone wants the garden spots. As the saying goes, the surest way to get your post of choice is to bid on what no one else wants. Also, every two to three years looking for a new job, in a new location. You show up on the job and you are looking for a new job, thinking about where you are going to go next. It is kind of unsettling, in my opinion. Getting overseas on a DOD job is the ideal solution; you not only are able to stay overseas for at least 5 years in one spot, but you also have access to all of the base facilities. Just my two cents worth.

TSB said...


Thanks for your comment. The bidding-assignment process for FS is definitely out of whack, and I can emphasize with the personal disruptions caused by frequent rotations. I wish you good luck with the CS job!