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Vol. LVIII, No. 22
November 03, 2006

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Chicken or Egg?
Forum on Retention Issues Circles Back to Recruitment

On the front page...

The major lesson from the recent forum on the retention of Latinos/ Hispanics at NIH—held as part of Hispanic Heritage Month—is that workplace happiness and productivity often depend on the same two factors, regardless of race, color or national origin: a great boss and a willingness to heave negativity aside in the quest for a satisfying job.

Not everyone has those circumstances, unfortunately.

Time and again, the four panelists in Lipsett Amphitheater emphasized the same traditional values. Get out and network. Find folks like yourself, with similar interests. Don’t take slammed doors personally, just keep hunting. Find a good mentor. Don’t settle for unsuitable positions.


  Panelist Jorge Zapata says resilience is key to success.  
  Panelist Jorge Zapata says resilience is key to success.  

There is no doubt that Hispanics are underrepresented in the federal workforce, particularly its upper reaches. Hispanics make up 13.5 percent of the civilian labor force, noted Dr. Ray Mejia, a 40-year NIH veteran and a mathematician in NHLBI’s Laboratory of Cardiac Energetics. But only about 7.4 percent of the federal workforce is Hispanic. Hispanics make up around 3.6 percent of the NIH workforce, or about 619 people.

In the period 2003-2006, around 4.6 percent of the people NIH hired were Hispanic, he continued. Some 528 Hispanics joined NIH in those 4 years, while another 485 separated from service.

“The net gain has been about 11 people,” Mejia figured. “In recent years, the net gain for Hispanics has been running less than a tenth of a percent of the workforce. The numbers have barely crept up over my 40 years here.”

In NIH’s intramural program, reported Dr. Arlyn Garcia-Perez, assistant director of the Office of Intramural Research, Hispanic representation among tenure-track investigators is higher (5.4 percent) than it is among the overall NIH workforce (3.6 percent) However, still only 2.6 percent of tenured investigators are Hispanic. Speaking from the audience to the panel, she reported that there are some 3,800 postdoctoral fellows at NIH (67 percent of whom are foreign nationals), but only 30 tenure-track positions open annually. “The odds are quite against being hired, no matter what the background,” she noted.
FNIH board chairman Dr. Charles Sanders (l) spoke, along with NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, at the recent Biomarkers Consortium announcement at the National Press Club.
Speaking from the audience, Dr. Arlyn Garcia-Perez, assistant director of the Office of Intramural Research, offers data on Hispanic representation in the scientific workforce at NIH.

Two members of the panel overcame the odds to find satisfying work at NIH. Jorge Zapata, a program analyst in the Office of Logistics and Acquisition Operations, came to campus in 1996 as a temp. “I was stuck in a dead-end job for a few years, but I was always aware of the vast opportunities here,” he said. “Then I found out about the MI [Management Intern] Program, and that opened countless doors for me. People need to search for opportunities—they are definitely out there,” he insisted. “You have to do the research that needs to be done. It’s not easy. I had to fight for it. But I didn’t let slammed doors keep me from moving forward.”

Dr. Teresa Estrada, a program analyst in NCI’s Office of Workforce Development, came to NIH in 1999 as a contractor, but had trained at NICHD as a predoc before that. She reentered the workforce as a temporary part-time worker but had the good fortune to work for a boss who became her mentor, and whose position she eventually took. “It’s critical to have mentors available,” she said. “Everyone, regardless of where you come from, needs a mentor.”
Dr. Marta Leon-Monzon of the Office of AIDS Research
Dr. Ray Mejia of NHLBI
Dr. Teresa Estrada of NCI
Clockwise, from upper left: Dr. Marta Leon-Monzon of the Office of AIDS Research moderated the recent panel on retention. On the panel were Dr. Ray Mejia of NHLBI, Dr. Teresa Estrada of NCI and Dr. John Crum of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

Estrada says NIH needs to tout its mentoring and training opportunities more loudly, including the MI program. “It’s also helpful for people to know that they can telework, or work part-time, or work flexible hours [she currently job shares, but calls that option underutilized and underrecognized].”

“The loan repayment program at NIH was crucial to me,” added Zapata. “College graduates have a lot of debt, and the [LRP] can be a good recruitment tool.”

Mejia, a numerical analyst at NHLBI, said he found out about NIH from a friend, and emphasized the need to remain socially engaged once employed. “You have to be able to connect with colleagues, and you have to be proactive.”
Dr. John Crum of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board

Offering an interesting overview of the federal workforce as a whole was Dr. John Crum of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, who reported that retention is not a problem overall for Uncle Sam. “If we keep you for 3-5 years,” he said, “we keep you forever.”

Relying solely on statistics for full-time permanent employees, he said the federal workforce experiences only a 2 percent voluntary loss rate annually, which is also true for NIH. He added that the average federal job opening draws 30-50 applicants.

“People want answers to two questions: Is the pay okay? And are there opportunities for advancement? If the answer is yes within 3-5 years, the average worker will stay forever unless driven out by poor management,” he said.

Crum said NIH is a tad below the average federal employer within those first few years, but quickly normalizes. “Your resources should go toward recruitment,” he advised. “That’s the realm where most gains are likely to be made.”

He cited a survey showing that pay and chances to move up motivate all workers, but that “chances for promotion are more important to Hispanics than to other groups. Also, [an employer’s] reputation is more important to Hispanics than to other groups. If you can engage [Hispanics] emotionally, you will be more successful.”

“Sometimes it seems like there’s a shield around NIH that prevents the outside world from knowing about the benefits here,” said panel moderator Dr. Marta Leon-Monzon, a health science administrator in the Office of AIDS Research and 28-year NIH veteran who has twice been president of the Hispanic Employees Organization. “We are the world’s best research institution and that should be enough to recruit people. I think we’re not using all the potential we have for recruiting Hispanics—that’s my view.”

During the question period, OIR’s Garcia-Perez reported that NIH is in the midst of studying the underrepresentation of women at the top of the workforce, too. She said that while the percentage of tenure-track investigators who are female is now 28 percent and rising, the total of tenured women at NIH remains stubbornly around 20 percent.

“There is a glass ceiling that you can document over the past 15-20 years,” she noted, “and it is very real. It’s not confined just to NIH; it involves other societal issues.” She further elaborated on the Hispanic demographics: Of 260 tenure-track scientists, only 14 are Hispanic; and of 933 tenured scientists at NIH, only 24 are Hispanic.

NIH’s observance of Hispanic Heritage Month also included a presentation on “Judging Performance: The Hispanic Perspective,” on Oct. 12, followed by a poster session showcasing the work of NIH Hispanic scientists and a sampling of ethnic foods. NIH Record Icon

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