Foreign Service hiring numbers explained
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
A lot of people ask me how many diplomats the State Department is hiring at the moment. I thought the question was moot because the 2017 hiring freeze under Rex Tillerson was lifted and hiring went back to normal.
By "normal" I mean that every year around 300 Generalist Foreign Service Officers are hired, typically in batches of 70, as well as approximately the same number of Specialists. This has been more or less the average since 2013.
But there are rumors that things aren't normal at all: the media reports that the State Department is being hollowed out and that young people are losing interest in the diplomatic career path. There’s also the idea out there that attrition rates are sky-high because unprecedented numbers of senior officials are quitting and some speculate that hiring will increase to plug the holes.
I don't have the numbers to support or refute these rumors, but I have a strong suspicion that these developments, insofar as they are true, will not lead to wildly different hiring numbers in the near future—for several reasons.
If you're interested in joining the Foreign Service and you want to understand hiring numbers and practices, you might want to consider the following:
Hiring numbers are relatively stable
As I mentioned, since 2013 around 300 new Generalists have entered the Foreign Service annually, pretty equally divided over the five cones: consular, economic, management, political, and public diplomacy.
This stability makes sense; attrition rates are low, even in times of relative upheaval. Also, lots of planning and budgeting goes into hiring FSOs, so wild variations are unlikely to happen.
Besides, you can’t make up for a deficit of senior leaders by hiring a bunch of newbees—it typically takes 15+ years for a FSO to reach any kind of real seniority.
It's hard to predict the future
That said, there have been some big changes in hiring numbers in recent years. For example, 2010 saw a massive hiring surge. The State Department hired over 700 new Generalists that year.
But everyone who heard about the surge in 2010 was too late to take advantage of it because the hiring process (the FSOT, the QEP, the FSOA, security clearance, and medical clearance) takes well over a year to complete (and for many over two years).
2017 saw a sudden hiring freeze. This really sucked for people who had already passed the test and were hoping to get hired that year, but it didn't matter much for people (like me) who were in the middle of the application process because by the time we passed the exams and had our clearances hiring was back to normal.
For hiring numbers to dramatically increase something extremely difficult is necessary: bipartisan support in Congress (because they control the foreign affairs budget). That happened in 2009 because of the wars in the Middle East and the accompanying foreign policy goals that required lots of civilian support in the field. In my opinion a hiring surge is not likely to happen right now because there's a pandemic (or for any other reason).
What that means for you
So, the potential of future hiring freezes and surges is more or less irrelevant if you’re interested in becoming a FSO. If you really want to become a diplomat all that matters is passing the exams and the clearance process.
If you’re just starting to apply it will be two (or three, or five) more years before you have to worry about the exact numbers being hired. It may be on the low side (200 per year) or on the high side (400+ per year), but it’s most likely going to be somewhere in between.
And you’ll have the best chance of getting hired by getting a high score on your oral exam so you’re the first one to receive an invite when the time has come!