GAO: Production Goals Undermining USPTO Hiring and Retention
According to the Government Accounting Office,
Although USPTO is hiring as many new patent examiners as its budget and institutional capacity will support, attrition is offsetting hiring progress, and agency management and patent examiners disagree about the causes for attrition. From 2002 through 2006, one patent examiner left USPTO for nearly every two the agency hired. This represents a significant loss to the agency because 70 percent of those who left had been at the agency for less than 5 years and new patent examiners are primarily responsible for the actions that remove applications from the backlog.
According to USPTO management, patent examiners leave the agency primarily for personal reasons, such as the job not being a good fit or family reasons. In contrast, 67 percent of patent examiners identified the agency's production goals as one of the primary reasons examiners may choose to leave USPTO. These production goals are based on the number of applications patent examiners must complete biweekly and have not been adjusted to reflect the complexity of patent applications since 1976.
Moreover, 70 percent of patent examiners reported working unpaid overtime during the past year, in order to meet their production goals. Such a large percentage of patent examiners who are working extra time to meet their production goals and would choose to leave the agency because of these goals may be an indication that the production goals do not accurately reflect the time patent examiners need to review applications and is undermining USPTO's hiring efforts.
The retention incentives and flexibilities provided by USPTO over the last 5 years generally align with the primary reasons identified by patent examiners for staying with the agency. Between 2002 and 2006, USPTO used a variety of retention
flexibilities such as a special pay rate, performance bonuses, flexible work schedules, and a telework program to encourage patent examiners to stay with the agency. According to USPTO management the most effective retention efforts were those related to compensation and an enhanced work environment. GAO's survey of patent examiners indicates that most patent examiners generally approved of USPTO's retention efforts, and ranked the agency's salary and other pay incentives as well as the flexible work schedule among the primary reasons for staying with the agency.
Despite its efforts to hire an increasing number of patent examiners annually and implement a number of retention incentives and flexibilities over the last 5 years, USPTO has had limited success in retaining new patent examiners. While many of the measures implemented generally align with the primary reasons that patent examiners would stay with the agency, these efforts have not been enough to prevent the agency from losing one patent examiner for nearly every two that it has hired, and especially troubling is the high loss of patent examiners who have been with the agency for less than 5 years.
Although USPTO management does not agree, the root of this high level of attrition appears to be the stress resulting from the agency’s outdated production goals. To meet the agency’s production goals, most patent examiners, regardless of their tenure with the agency, have had to work unpaid overtime or work during paid leave time, and therefore consider this to be a primary reason for leaving USPTO. Because the production goals appear to be undermining USPTO’s efforts to hire and retain a highly qualified workforce, we believe the agency will continue to be limited in its ability to meet the increasing demand for U.S. patents and reduce the growth of the patent application backlog, and ultimately may be unable to fulfill its mission of ensuring U.S. competitiveness.