No Longer Grandma’s Foreign Service

Steal this post for Secretary Clinton’s Sounding Board.

[This was originally posted on May 11, 2008. I am reposting this here for two three reasons: 1) State in under new management, 2) Secretary Clinton has launched “The Sounding Board” in the Intranet and 3) the Feds want to save money. If you work either at Foggy Bottom or elsewhere in our consulates and embassies, please steal this post below and repost this in “The Sounding Board,” or email it directly to the “Secretary’s Suggestion Box.”]

have written previously about Staffing the Foreign Service here and here. This post will specifically address the State Department’s most underutilized resources – the Foreign Service spouses and partners (aka: members of household same sex partners).

The “two-person single career,” that was the norm in the Foreign Service at the start of the 20th century is long dead. In 2005, it was reported that 65% of people in the national workforce are in dual-career relationships. I’m not sure what the percentage is for FS couples, but since the Foreign Service generally reflects American society, I would guess that the number is not too far off from this figure.

The 2007 statistics available from the Family Liaison Office of the State Department indicates that we have over 9,000 family members (from 217 posts) overseas, of which 80% are female and 20% are male. Approximately 2,000 family members or 25% are working within an embassy while a large chunk – 63% are not working. I don’t have the stats on educational level but the family member talent pool also indicates that we have 37% in the high end executive level, 38% in the mid-executive level and only 25% in the emerging level. Note that these stats refer to adult family members of U.S. government employees assigned to overseas mission under Chief of Mission authority, and do not include members of household partners (numbering between 500-700).

We can glean a few things from these stats: 1) the family member talent pool is rich but underutilized, 2) Family members employed at US Missions typically do clerical work and dead-end jobs; a captured workforce at the emerging level unless they return to school and/or return to the U.S for more substantial jobs; 3) the number of family members not working is much higher as these numbers do not include member of household partners, 4) If 63% of family members are not working, and couples revert to the “two-person single career” mold from the 50’s, we will have a large number of FS spouses/partners with minimal financial security in their old age (no job or low pay = minimal retirement pay). This could be a significant drawback for Gen-Y and Millennial-employees considering the length of their stay in the Service.

From “Diplomats and Diplomacy for the 21st Century,” a dissertation written by Gustav Lindstrom for RAND University (pdf file):

… “From a retention perspective, the State Department needs to take active steps to ensure that spouses of FSOs can attain gainful employment while serving abroad.”

…”Entering FSOs may be able to take one or two “deployments” with the spouse staying at home, however, for the long run, such an arrangement may turn out to be untenable which may lead to attrition from the Service. From an economic standpoint, giving up the career of one of the family members is a costly decision.”

….While spouses can have careers, they are probably not going to be the ones that they envision; Lindstrom quoted Ray Leki of the FSI Transition Center.

The need is not just for gainful employment but meaningful employment. I have actually meet some people in the FS (not too many, thank goodness!) who thinks that spouses should be happy if they get a job, any job – never mind if it’s a mindless one or a dead ender job. After all, despite a bachelor or graduate degree, one is “just a spouse.” At the extreme end of some of the egregious remarks that spouses occasionally hear came from a DCM who told a female FSO that she should leave the FS because she has a professional husband, who wants to work in his field (the spouse is a lawyer). At least the senior officer had a mind not to suggest that she divorce her spouse to solve the two-career problem.

In any case, it is not unheard of for a 10-hour/week roving secretary position that pays $12/hr advertised as “a good job for spouses.” That’s about how much Walmart pays for its associate and slightly more than what you’d pay for a nanny per hour in the UK. It is true that there are spouses who prefer to stay home to take care of the kids, that there are spouses who would rather take a $12/hr job than have no job, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Within this limited universe, spouses should have the free choice whether to stay home or work. But it is also true that we have spouses who aspire for careers of their own. The fact that the later group wants careers of their own should not make them whiners but should make us think harder how we can best support them. I am aware of the initiatives that had been rolled out in the last five or so years – but remember, these EFM employment numbers are from 2007. There’s a huge difference between doing something and doing all we can. I’m sure somebody would be happy to tell me that “this is better than nothing” – true, but “better than nothing” should not be our bar, if we want to do this right. Furthermore, “better than nothing” has never been a good recipe for employee engagement.

Below are some ideas for promoting gainful and meaningful employment for our Foreign Service spouses and partners (I’m sure there are many more floating around out there). I realized that the inclusion of MOH partners under the Eligible Family Member (EFM) definition is still being fought (see Life After Jerusalem), but for purposes of these “orphan ideas,”my reference to EFMs here include spouses and MOH partners.

Functional Fellowship for EFMs

Most jobs (including State’s specialist requirements) require candidates to have the skills and specialized experience of at least three years. Given that family members move every 2-3 years, and have no control over what jobs becomes available at any given post, an FS spouse would have to be extremely lucky if he/she can have that three years experience in one specific field in a span of three overseas assignments (6-9 years). In reality, that almost never happens because most spouses take whatever job becomes available –mail clerk, security escort, roving secretary, CLO, newsletter editor, visa clerk, fingerprint clerk, etc. etc. – all the fun jobs at the embassy.

The Functional Fellowships would allow spouses/partners who have the educational background but lacking specific work experience, to work at our US Missions in order to gain specialized experience in a progressive manner. At the conclusion of the fellowship, he/she should have the option of applying for the specialist vacancy relevant to his/her experience. For this to work, the fellowships must be based on educational qualifications, past performance, and potential and must be centrally funded. The State leadership’s full support on this and commitment on the increase of tandem couples in our ranks is crucial to the success of this initiative.

EFM Virtual Corps

We have approximately 2,000 out of 9,000 family members who are currently working in over 217 missions worldwide. Majority if not all of them already have, at the minimum, a “Secret” level clearance. And yet, when they relocate to other posts, it is entirely possible that they won’t find work there. The average cost to process a SECRET clearance has been reported to run from several hundred dollars to $3,000, depending on individual factors. The average cost to process a TOP SECRET clearance is between $3,000 and about $15,000, depending on individual factors. Given that most FS folks spend majority of their lives overseas, the $3,000 for a Secret clearance process for EFMs would be way too low. But let’s assume that all the EFMs currently working only have a Secret level clearance – at $3,000 each that’s still 6Million USD right there. Even if only 500 of them lost their jobs due to regular reassignment, that’s 1.5M USD that’s not put to effective use.

So here’s the idea – why can’t we create an EFM Virtual Corps? The EFMs who are already in the system could be assigned a specialization based on prior work experience within the US Mission. When not employed at post, their names could be added to the EFM Virtual Corps, a resource for other posts who require virtual supplementary or temporary/ongoing support online. Their email and Intranet logon should be enabled to facilitate communication while they are on a float assignment and their reporting authority should be a straight line to a central coordinator at Main State and a dotted line to the Management Counselor at post. I know, I know, somebody from HR probably have a ready list of reasons on why this can’t be done, but – how do we know if this works or not if we don’t try? The technology is already available, we just need organizational will and some, to make this work.

State-Supported EFM, Inc. – An Outsourcing Provider

A friend of mine actually gave me this idea when she asked – Why can’t State outsource its contracting and support jobs to a State-supported/enabled corporation staffed by qualified family members overseas? Yes, why not? While Washington, D.C. and half of the world sleep, the other part is awake and should be able to perform the required tasks. Instead of sending the work to a BPO in India or the Philippines, State could simply send the required tasks to a virtual corporation staffed by our own people. Wouldn’t this what you’d call a “win-win” proposition?

Excerpted from Fast Company: Jordan Cohen, senior director of organizational effectiveness at Pfizer learned after analyzing the activities of Pfizer employees, that they spend 20% to 40% of their time on four activities: creating documents, manipulating and analyzing spreadsheets, scheduling meetings, and researching. “Our Harvard MBA staff was spending a lot of time doing ‘support’ work, not their actual jobs,” says Jordan Cohen, senior director of organizational effectiveness. “These are people we hired to develop strategies and innovate. Instead, they were Googling and making PowerPoints.” I’m convinced that State can learn from Pfizer’s success in this area – but, this would of course, require an “outside the box” and “running with scissors to embrace the future” perspective. You get penalized for these perspectives at times (although there are exceptions) … but if we truly want to be the diplomatic corps of the 21st century, well then we should embrace the Office of the Future, and all that it can offer, shouldn’t we?

Language Specialist Corps

A GAO Report on Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls indicates that personnel with foreign language skills are needed in a range of federal agency programs and missions. It states in part:

“In light of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the importance of foreign language skills will increase as the United States expands its efforts to counter terrorist activities. The federal agencies we reviewed face shortages of translators and interpreters, as well as staff with other foreign language skills. These shortages strain agency operations that depend in part on language-skilled employees to meet increasingly complex missions. Agencies have pursued strategies such as training, targeted recruitment efforts, and contracting to fill documented skill gaps. However, these strategies have not been completely effective in closing those gaps.”

Although the US Army make use of external resources including contracting staff as needed, recruiting native or U.S.–trained language speakers; or drawing on the expertise of other agency staff, reservists, or retirees, the State Department does not target native speakers, nor use external resources, because it does not believe that language proficiency is the primary criterion for selecting Foreign Service officers. However, we’re talking about shortages not just within the FS but across other Federal agencies with foreign language requirement.

I feel like waving my arms and jumping up and down here and screaming ya-hoo!! What are you looking elsewhere for? We have an available pool of native language speakers within our ranks, but as usual, we did not see it fit to factor them in our strategic human capital planning. We have shortages of translators and interpreters in the Federal Government, why can’t we put to use FS family members and partners with native foreign language proficiency? How many foreign born spouses do we have? How many native born spouses do we have who have already availed themselves of language training at FSI? More than I could count. Test them at FSI, keep them on the roster and reward them hiring points for keeping/improving language capabilities, put them on call as translators and foreign language specialist as needed by the Government. With a Language Specialist Corps composed of native speakers from the Foreign Service community, we would not only be filling up a documented skills gap in the Federal Government, we would also give our family members another option at creating a portable career at home and abroad. Why can’t this be done?

People talk about the ongoing “war on talent,” and yet when we talk about that we only seem to think of our officers and support personnel. We have paid cursory attention to the talent we already have, not fully recognizing what our FS spouses/partners have to offer. They have significant influence over whether an employee stays or leave this organization and utilizing them in a strategic manner can offer the organization cost-savings in moving and support expenses, and more. Unless the State Department releases a new directive requiring diplomats to remain single, spouses and partners are here to stay. In this era of budget crunch, of doing more with less, of accelerating talent wars, or boomers riding out into the sunset, I wonder why State still spends all that money and energy recruiting externally instead of looking at what it already has within. It is high time that we start looking at FS spouses and partners as resource and not as “cost.” This group has the potential to impact not only the organization’s bottom line, but also its retention of talent. This is no longer grandma’s Foreign Service; some spouses will not be happy to just bake pie.