BY TOM YAZDGERDI
AFSA is at work on many different aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. We are pushing for answers on the summer transfer season, asking about premium pay for those in critical needs jobs who put themselves at greater risk, and advocating for maximum flexibility for our members as the department considers new guidance.
We have made one area a priority: the continued onboarding of our new generalists and specialists.
The department had maintained that in this environment, it was just too difficult logistically to move ahead with A-100 and specialist orientation classes on a virtual basis. It had notified those affected that once things return to normal, they would be part of the next available class.
In the meantime, these prospective Foreign Service (and AFSA) members had been provided with the means to return home if they have already come to Washington, and told that their household goods could remain in storage at government expense while they waited.
While we appreciate the difficulties of orienting new Foreign Service members remotely, that just wasn’t the right answer. AFSA is proud to have played a role in convincing the department to reverse course, which it did in late April.
Both a specialist and an A-100 class, accounting for more than 200 new employees, were scheduled to begin virtual orientation in May and be welcomed into the Foreign Service family.
Bringing these new colleagues on now means that they can feel confident that they made the right choice in committing to the U.S. Foreign Service.
There will likely be twists and turns as these are the first virtual orientation classes, and AFSA will continue to be there to support our newest colleagues.
AFSA is also grateful to Ambassadors (ret.) Dennis Jett and Ron Neumann (president of the American Academy of Diplomacy), who weighed in on online training in a recent article in The Hill: “… there is no reason such training wouldn’t be as effective. Virtually every university in the country has shifted to online learning for the remainder of the semester. Those graduating in May are not going to get a degree that says they got a second-rate education because they were not seated in a classroom for the final two months.”
Pickering and Rangel Fellows. AFSA is particularly concerned that the COVID-19 crisis not negatively affect the entry of Pickering and Rangel Fellows into the Foreign Service.
These two fellowship programs, administered by Howard University, welcome the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the State Department, women and those with financial need.
If it weren’t for Pickering and Rangel Fellows, the diversity situation of the Foreign Service would look even bleaker than it currently does.
I had the opportunity, with colleagues from our Labor-Management team, to speak to a number of Pickering and Rangel Fellows in early April. They told us that, in general, there is open communication with the department on the many issues that they face.
We learned from them that the State Department is also committed to conducting virtual training in lieu of domestic and international internships, and that these trainings will fulfill fellowship requirements.
We asked them to share with us a comprehensive list of questions and concerns that we could also raise with our department contacts.
These include a number of important issues that might still be unresolved: Since the fellows are supposed to enter in the July-August time frame, will there be an A-100 class then, virtual if need be? Are there any alternatives for employment in the interim if A-100 is postponed?
Since some of them are students who have demonstrated financial need, will stipend checks for housing be provided, even if the training is virtual? Will health coverage be provided?
Never Stop Your Intake. This situation speaks to the larger issue of ensuring that even in times of crisis, we make it a priority to maintain our intake of new Foreign Service members.
This is not only the right thing to do for those who have made the commitment to serve our country, but it makes sense from the standpoint of the department’s organizational health and diversity.
Too often in times of budgetary constraint across different administrations, we have seen the decision made to stop offering the Foreign Service Officer Test, delay the formation of orientation classes or institute a hiring freeze.
The effect of this on recruitment and morale cannot be overstated. You don’t need a business or management background to understand why it’s never a good thing to cut off your source of new talent.
We will continue to advocate for all of those who are waiting expectantly to begin their careers with the U.S. Foreign Service and, we hope, to become active members of AFSA.