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Posted 10/3/2014

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By LaDonna Davis
Southwestern Division


Famous author Rick Riorden once wrote, “People are more difficult to work with than machines. And when you break a person, he can't be fixed.”

While Mr. Riorden was writing about a Greek god in one of his fictional books, the sentiment can be applied to any workplace environment. The bottom line is this: for any organization to be successful, it is crucial to take care of the people that make it run.

That is at the core of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Campaign Plan, Goal 4: “Build ready and resilient people and teams through innovative talent management and leader development strategies and programs.”

Sue Engelhardt, the director of human resources for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, recently visited the Southwestern Division to emphasize the importance of understanding and taking care of the people that make up the division’s workforce. The visit gave employees a chance to learn about the different generations that make up the Corps workforce, the characteristics of each generation, and how to better understand, and thus work with, those who have different working styles.

“The Corps has always been very innovative and at the forefront of human resources and we just want to continue on that path,” said Engelhardt.

One of the unique characteristics about the Corps’ workforce, Engelhardt said, is the multi-generational staff that is currently employed with the Corps. For the first time, there are four generations making up the Corps’ workforce: baby boomers (49%), traditionalist (2%), generation X (35%) and millennials (14%). This distinctive work environment provides both challenges and opportunities for the Corps to learn and grow as an agency.

“There are unique things about each generation,” Engelhardt said. “The baby boomers and traditionalist are much more about, ‘this is how we should be doing things,’ and are maybe not as open to change, but change is constantly coming in. The millennials and generations Xers have pushed us to put initiatives in place to make the workplace better, such as alternate work schedules and telework. But it’s also about the Gen Xs and millennials seeing what the baby boomers expect and think and bring to the workforce. So it’s a two way street. It’s about how do we learn from each other.”

Learning from each other is a critical component in maintaining a successful agency such as the Corps, where 20 percent of the workforce is currently eligible for retirement, with another 20% eligible for early retirement. Ensuring that the retirement eligible employees are passing down their knowledge and developing the incoming workers is crucial for the Corps where projects and studies can go on for many years. Adding to the challenges, like many government agencies, the Corps is facing reduced funding, hiring freezes and consolidated job duties, making it harder to recruit and retain a diverse and talented workforce. Overcoming these challenges is a multi-faceted process that Engelhardt and her team are working to solve.

“One of the initiatives that the Corps is focusing on is knowledge management. It helps ensure that we are transferring knowledge from people that are leaving so we can continue to meet our mission requirements,” said Engelhardt.

“We are also mentoring our younger employees to make sure they understand how and why we do things the way we do. We use our flexibilities to temporarily hire a small number of retired employees for short time periods to not only assist with special projects/needs but most importantly to mentor and develop the current workforce.”

Engelhardt also says in order to retain good employees, the Corps has to find ways to promote talent faster.

“In the past, for example, an employee might have stayed a GS-12 for 10 years before being considered as ready for promotion,” she said. “That can no longer be the case. We have to move people faster through the pipeline, which means providing career and developmental opportunities to have them ready to take on new challenges. We have to make sure we have the talent available to continue to support the missions when someone retires.”

Though the human resources challenges seem immense, Engelhardt is confident the Corps will succeed by remaining flexible, emphasizing the mission, recognizing employee’s achievements and teaching good leadership skills.

“I always say the main reason somebody leaves a job is they leave their supervisor,” said Engelhardt. “So that means we need to have supervisors as leaders and focus on developing the workforce. The future keeps changing, and the Corps does an excellent job at shaping the workforce to meet the changes and ensure that our mission needs are met.”

Human Resources USACE