Where Does the Econ Track Lead?

State VP Voice


Before coming to State in January 2000, I’d spent about five years on Capitol Hill covering a range of legislative issues including trade, environmental protection, agriculture, transportation, intellectual property rights (IPR), water resources and, of course, foreign policy.

So when I was offered the opportunity to join the Foreign Service, I opted—after some thought—to become an economic officer. I’d enjoyed the areas I’d been covering for my congressional bosses, and it seemed a natural fit as my career in public service continued.

But somehow, as careers go, the opportunities to do a lot of substantive econ work seemed elusive. I did my consular tour, covered mainly political issues on the Greece and Turkey desk, and went to Baghdad after the “mission accomplished” photo op, where I managed the reconstruction of the Iraqi National Assembly building.

To get things back on track, I then took the challenging 10-month econ course at FSI. When I bid, I bid only on econ jobs, but when the handshake came, I got a pol/mil job in Berlin. Berlin was great, of course, and the portfolio was certainly interesting, but I’d just finished the econ course!

It wasn’t until my next tour, in Sri Lanka, that I finally served in my cone, as deputy economic chief, covering a range of issues including the environment, science, technology and health (ESTH) portfolio, narcotics, IPR, agriculture and commercial development. I loved it; but sadly, that was the last time I worked exclusively on econ issues full time.

When I started serving here at AFSA, my A-100 colleagues began to reach out to me with concerns about the slow rate of promotions. We all remember how awful the promotion rates were in 2017, especially for econ officers (who were, for the fifth year in a row, the least-promoted cone).

In 2018 we got hit again.The numbers were a smidge better, but with fewer than 6 percent of econ officers promoted from the FS-2 to FS-1 level, it was still tough going. Folks were getting worried, as was I. Would some run out of time, TIC out? Would others retire as FS-2s? This didn’t make sense to any of us. The expectation is that a “normal” career path for tenured officers means reaching FS-1 within 20 years, give or take.

As of June 2018, there were roughly 1,550 State FS economic officers, but only 700 econ positions by grade.

Last year I took a quick look at the “autobiography” book we were given at the start of A-100, and I noticed some interesting data points. About 25 percent of my A-100 colleagues have left the Foreign Service. We were a relatively small class for 2000, with only 59 members. Of those 59, four hit their mandatory retirement age and retired. Another 11, including nine women, left.The retention issues we hear about in the Foreign Service, especially for women, were certainly true for my class.

Of the 44 remaining officers, 17 are FS-2s—about 40 percent. I was shocked the numbers were so high. And of those 17 FS-2s, fully 15 are econ officers, and not even one of those 15 was promoted in 2018.

All of a sudden, that expectation of reaching FS-1 within 20 years starts to look doubtful—at least for econ officers. What’s gone wrong? Why are so many strong officers stuck? Is this the new normal, or is the department just ignoring a growing problem?

I was still working on the Hill when the Newt Gingrich “Contract for America” revolution and the subsequent government shutdowns led to slashing budgets for our federal departments, including the Department of State. And while most departments opted for a reduction-in-force to shrink the size of government, State nobly refused. We reached our draconian reductions by virtually halting hiring from 1995 to 1999.

In fact, the first “large” A-100 class of about 90 came on board in April 1999, with a second following in July. That means that in April 2019, and thereafter, the number of officers who will have completed 20 years of service will increase dramatically, and the number eligible to retire will jump as well. Will we see a spike in those leaving as FS-2s? Will we see a spike in those TICing out as FS-2s before reaching age 50?

As of June 2018, there were roughly 1,550 State FS economic officers, but only 700 econ positions by grade. In an up-or-out system, where in-cone experience is critical to promotion, how the heck are we supposed to get ahead when the opportunities are so sparse?

These are just a few of the questions we’re raising with the department. We’ll keep our members posted as we learn more about this, and as you’ll read throughout this edition of the Journal, we’ll continue pushing the department to reinvigorate the econ career path, and the career paths of all members of the Foreign Service.

Kenneth Kero-Mentz is the Department of State vice president of the American Foreign Service Association.