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October 2002

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The Drought Has Ended—We HopeWe have good news out of Washington at long last about U. S. Foreign Service officer recruitment.

The Service for years has operated at considerably less than full, or even in many instances, adequate staffing at the United States’ 250 embassies and consulates abroad. Note as just one special problem area the pressing need for additional consular officers to conduct visa interviews overseas, an area of responsibility that has been required by law for many, many years. But as American Foreign Service Association President John Naland points out elsewhere in this journal [click here], “sufficient resources have never been allocated to permit personal interviews of every visa applicant.” The shortfall has been particularly acute in recent years, to the point that to do the job the number of visa officers needs to be at least doubled right away, from the current 660 to 1,300 or more.

Due to a lack of funding and a diminished recruiting effort in the past, those needed officers, trained and qualified, are simply not on the job.

This year the Department of State’s Human Resources Bureau (HR) has been able to do something about the need for additional officers. Under the leadership of Secretary of State Colin Powell, with Congressional funding support and following a focused recruitment campaign, HR has markedly expanded the FSO examination process. Well over 56,000 Americans signed up to take the difficult written qualifying test in 2002, an astonishing number, the largest ever.

HR’s Board of Examiners for the Foreign Service for the first time in many years offered the five-hour examination twice, in April and September. If past experience is a guide, something over fifty percent of those who signed up will actually sit for the exam (in the English phrase), or about 28,000 men and women.

This unusually large total represents a greatly increased talent pool from which the Service will draw new officers for appointment in 2002-2003.

Taking the written examination is, of course, only the first step to appointment as an FSO. Based to some extent on projected staffing needs, likely no more than 3,000 applicants will pass the always very tough written this year. Those fortunate relative few will then be subjected to searching oral assessments, plus medical and security checks, from which a total of up to 750 persons will emerge as fully successful. At that point they will go on the HR’s register of eligibles for appointment over the coming months.

There is every indication that, with Secretary Powell’s strong support, during 2002, 2003, and 2004, the Foreign Service will hire 1,100 officers above attrition—that is, 1,100 more than would normally be hired—during that three-year period.

The personnel drought of at least a decade in duration thus seems to have ended, and none too soon. In these perilous times the American Foreign Service, the nation’s first line of defense, simply must be kept up to effective strength with a steady intake of qualified, motivated personnel.

To do otherwise would be not only foolish but dangerous in the extreme.

Editor Henry E. Mattox
Oct. ’02



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