Dec 31 2009

Perk Package Makeover

Faced with a looming retirement crisis, federal agencies spruce up benefits programs to slash turnover rates and motivate employees to stay put.

At a fitness facility in Baltimore, a dozen members
learn the finer points of cardio kickboxing during
their lunch break. While the instructor barks
directions, the men and women throw punches
into the air as they spin and kick. For the next 30
minutes, the group continues its calorie-burning
assault. When the class ends, everyone leaves the
exercise floor, heads for the showers and then
returns to work at Social Security Administration
(SSA) headquarters. Besides putting in a full day's
work, these employees also participate in physical
activities to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Perks common to the corporate sector are now appearing at
federal agencies, such as the SSA, which compete with the private
sector for skilled professionals. Life- and career-planning services,
family counseling and flex-time scheduling are becoming a regular
part of the government work environment.

"In today's competitive labor market, it is essential to develop a
multifaceted approach to recruiting and retaining top
talent so that you become an employer of choice and
a place where new hires want to make a career," says
Ray Paul, SSA's deputy associate commissioner for
personnel. "Being on the cutting edge is an ongoing
goal, and staying there is the long-term objective."

The changing workplace is having a
major impact on government's human
capital policies. "As baby boomers age and
some of these workers retire, government
agencies must compete more directly with
the private sector—especially among
certain job classifications," says Jane
Paradiso, recruiting solutions practice
leader at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a
human resources consultancy based in
Washington, D.C. "The government still
has a way to go, but it is making strides.
Certain agencies are beginning to
understand what it takes to attract and
retain talent."

Government workers today demand
the same benefits as their counterparts
receive in the private sector, Paradiso
points out. They're increasingly looking
for job flexibility and a sense of balance in
their lives. Benefits such as fitness facilities,
child-care centers, health clinics and
wellness programs are a powerful magnet.
These perks simplify people's lives and
help create a positive attitude toward their

For employers, such programs provide
a solid return on investment. For instance,
an onsite health clinic reduces the time
that employees spend driving to and from
a doctor's appointment, thereby enabling
them to devote more time to their job. An
onsite child-care center makes it possible
for people to spend time with their
children at lunch or during breaks.

Enacted in 2001, the Child Care
Subsidy Program permits agencies to
spend appropriated funds to help
employees cover the costs of child care. As
a result, more than 250 child-care centers
have been established at federal offices.

"Programs that tie people into spending
more time at work, being happier at work
and making things easier provide
tremendous payback," Paradiso says.

The SSA provides a sterling example of
that approach to human capital. In
addition to state-of-the-art fitness centers
in some of its largest facilities around the
country, the organization offers programs
and services aimed at helping employees
balance work and family responsibilities.

These offerings include professional
counseling services under the Employee
Assistance Program (EAP), employee
health and wellness programs, accredited
onsite child care, and elder-care
information and referral services. These
services represent just a portion of the
innovative support activities and programs
available to employees.

Taking a Proactive Approach

The SSA is not alone in its efforts to attract
and retain talented employees. Across the
country, General Services Administration
(GSA) employees who have children can
bring them to one of the agency's 113
child-care facilities. The National
Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) provides fitness centers, child
care, health
facilities and an
EAP counseling
service for its

Agencies such as
SSA, GSA and
NASA take a
proactive approach
to competing with
the private sector by
creating a work
environment that is
attractive to skilled
professionals who
are considering
a career in
government. Life-and career-planning
services, family
counseling, flex-time scheduling,
and seminars and
lectures are
becoming a regular
part of the
government work

Federal agencies
understand that a well-crafted benefits
policy can reduce recruitment costs and
slash turnover rates, while also helping to
create a happier, more motivated and
productive workforce. Depending on the
position, the cost of hiring and training an
employee can range from a couple of
thousand dollars to more than $10,000.
The ripple effect of losing an employee
can cause further damage. When a
department or work team finds itself
shorthanded, morale and enthusiasm
often languish, leading to absenteeism and
additional turnover.

Child's Play

At GSA, recruitment and retention are top
concerns. In the 1980s, the agency began
introducing child-care centers in federal
buildings throughout the United States.

Today, the agency manages 113
facilities and provides care for more than
7,700 children. Employees pay between
$100 and $337 per week. More than 80
percent of its child-care centers are
accredited, compared to about 8 percent
for private facilities across the country.

"The program is an important tool for
recruiting and retention," says Eileen
Stern, director of
GSA's Office of
Child Care.

GSA includes
about its child-care centers in its
package. Further
details are
available in a
booklet that
receive during
orientation and
via the agency's
Web site and
e-newsletter. "It
is a huge morale
boost for parents
to have these
kinds of
facilities," says
Sue Dixon, a
GSA child-care

During the last
decade, other
federal agencies
also launched benefits programs designed
to attract and retain employees. At NASA,
fitness centers, child care, health facilities
and an EAP program are all part of the
picture for some 18,000 employees. The
agency also offers tuition assistance for
employees seeking advanced degrees, as
well as flexible work schedules, leave
sharing and telecommuting.

"These programs have been important
in attracting and retaining employees,"
says Melissa Riesco, a manager at NASA's
Human Capital Management office. The
agency's recruiters hand out brochures,
CDs and other materials at college and
professional job fairs, and NASA offers
benefits information on its Web site.

"NASA prides itself on offering a
complete employment package," Riesco
says. The strategy contributes to a low
3 percent to 4 percent annual turnover
rate for permanent employees.

Securing Talent

At SSA, a competitive benefits package is
an extension of the agency's service-oriented commitment to "value and
invest in each employee," Paul explains.

"A one-size-fits-all
mindset no longer
results in recruitment
and retention

Instead, SSA
provides a balanced
approach to connect
with prospective
employees who have
the right combination
of knowledge, skills
and abilities, while
making sure the
support structure is in
place to keep them in
the workforce.

SSA is on the right
track. With more than
65,000 employees in
more than 1,300
offices across the
country—14,000 in
its headquarters
location alone—the
agency's retention rate
for new hires (tracked
over a two-year
period from the date
of hire) rose from 84 percent in 2002 to
86 percent in 2003 and 90 percent in

When it comes to work and family
support services, some of the numbers are
impressive. Last year, SSA's EAP provided
more than 4,000 counseling sessions for
employees and their families. The doctors
and nurses of the Employee Health
Services staff recorded more than 38,000

The headquarters' child-care facility
serves more than 300 children. The
licensed and accredited facility includes a
kindergarten program. At rates ranging
from $130 to $165 per week, the cost is
below the $200 or more charged by
private facilities in the area.

Parents also enjoy having their
children near where they work. SSA also
offers onsite child-care services in
Chicago, New York, the San Francisco
Bay area, Richmond, Va., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and participates in joint-use
centers with other federal agencies
around the country.

In addition, SSA offers an elder-care
program that provides printed
information, videotapes and online
resources to help employees deal with
issues affecting their parents and other
aging loved ones. A career/life planning
service provides one-on-one career
guidance services, résumé development
and mentoring.

Health and wellness information is
available online, with links to many
professional medical information sites
nationwide. "These are the special things
that today's job seekers look for," says Bill
Alker, director of SSA's Center for
Employee Services.

Meeting the Challenge

It's challenging to provide accessible work
and family programs and services to tens of
thousands of employees throughout a
large, geographically dispersed agency.
Logistics and cost considerations make it
difficult to provide every program and
service available to all employees in the
same manner.

However, SSA attempts to level the
playing field as much as possible: When
face-to-face services are not available, they
can be extended via phone, fax, direct mail
and contract services, as well as through an
extensive human resources Web site.

"We strongly believe that by taking
care of our employees, we'll be able to
[improve services to] the millions of
people who rely on the Social Security
program," Paul says.

"The right mix of benefits is an
essential tool in today's labor market,"

adds Watson Wyatt's Paradiso. Federal
agencies are expanding their vision of how
they manage human capital. That vision
could help usher in a new era of
performance and productivity in the
federal government.


The U.S. Social Security
Administration's retention rate
for new hires has risen over
the past two years.

— 2002


— 2003


— 2004

Source: U.S. Social Security Administration


According to an August 2004 poll among recent college grads and midcareer
professionals, benefits such as health insurance, paid vacation and retirement
plans top the list as the best reason to work for the federal government.