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November 2, 2007

Attrition

Attrition is atrocious at the USPTO. Why? Having paid my dues to play the blues as an examiner, a few notes sing out.

Newly hired examiners come from a variety of backgrounds, but the majority are joining the PTO workforce immediately after getting their undergraduate degree. An engineering student is repeatedly told throughout his education that upon graduation he will be highly sought after, that indeed: the world is his oyster. So, you have engineering students searching for that perfect first job, thinking they are God’s gift, and when they don’t find it, they turn to the USPTO. Not to say that working for the patent office can’t be the perfect job, but with the current state of the office, it’s not. Moreover, it certainly does not look like the perfect job to a 22-year-old with ideas of engineering grandeur in one's future. This leads to a population of new examiners ready to leave the PTO before they even start. Most new examiners I knew during my tenure at the patent office had hopes and plans to leave within 2 years of starting.

This creates a difficult hiring situation for the PTO. How do you convince sometimes talented and often arrogant new hires to stick it out and give their job a chance? While admittedly lacking a holistic solution to this difficult problem, here are some things you don’t do:

1) Increase the duration of examiner training program from 3 weeks to 8 months. Examiners currently spend 8 months in a “training art unit”. This time is spent in cubicles under a temporary training supervisor. In addition, the probationary period for new hires has been extended to 2 years. This means that a new examiner can be fired for essentially any reason during their first 2 years of service. Some examiners never even make it past their training period into a real work situation.

2) Constantly discuss office retention issues at meetings and training events. Consistently bombarding new examiners with the idea that everyone else is leaving makes them think they must be missing something by sticking around.

3) Refuse to match salaries to other salaries in the industry. Examiners are underpaid, especially walking in the door. Examiners are paid less than engineers and less than patent agents. The D.C. area is very expensive. The starting salary of an examiner just barely covers rent of a studio apartment plus expenses. Additionally, the PTO does not pay relocation expenses, and does not pay out the same performance bonuses during an examiner’s probationary period.

4) Allocate resources to technology that is a huge expense with limited return. In the past year, the PTO purchased dual 21” LCD monitors for all examiners, so that they could “more efficiently perform their job functions”, and additionally purchased laptops for all examiners who requested them, so that they could work overtime from home. Although these are nice conveniences, they don't increase retention. Maybe spending the money elsewhere could.

5) Hire anyone and everyone. I know a hiring manager who had a very enlightening story about the USPTO hiring process. She interviewed a gentleman at a USPTO job fair in Chicago, and let’s just say that she was not impressed. Not only did he give all of the wrong answers, he went on to insult both her and the patent office. So, in response, she wrote DO NOT HIRE in big bold letters across his application. A month later she ran into him at the office; turns out that he was a proud new patent examiner.

Then there's POPA, the union that represents all USPTO examiners. Although their intentions are presumably good and directed at helping all fellow examiners, their intended help is misguided. POPA’s mantra that all USPTO management initiatives are inherently evil and self serving, while possibly true, does little to foster high spirits around the office. Their cynical outlook and reporting of almost exclusively gloomy events transforms their monthly newsletter, which is distributed to examiners, into a monthly reminder of why an examiner should resign. Newsletter day is the most depressing day of the month around the office; only beat out during months when POPA hosts a semi-annual meeting.

The USPTO has many problems to solve, including but not limited to: quality issues, tremendous backlog, and attrition. It is unfortunate that management allows other issues to take priority over retention, instead of realizing that retention alone is the heart of the problem.

The patent office needs to give examiners a reason to stay. So what is my solution? Myself, as well as many new examiners, were originally attracted to the PTO for the opportunity to learn new technologies. But with a two and a half year backlog, and limited technical training, opportunities to learn about new technologies are few and far between. Technical training should be a more integral part of the patent office. Why not create examiners who are experts in the field? Currently the time breakdown is around 98% examining and 2% technical training. This should be closer to 70% examining and 30% training. Increased job satisfaction, decreased attrition, and improved examination quality all in one shot. What more could you want?

Posted by Mr. Platinum at November 2, 2007 7:32 AM | The Patent Office

Comments

Having been at the PTO for several years, I have to agree with Jordan Kuhn's comments. I would like to add to his comments (1) and (3).

1) During your 8 month training period, your writing and examination style is molded to match your trainer. When you are placed with your art unit and report to your SPE (your actual non-training supervisor), you quickly learn that your trainer's preferred style is nowhere near the same as the style desired by your SPE. As your SPE is the one that actually decides whether to retain you or not, this can create some problems to put it mildly.

3) Management has this warped view of how employment works in the real world. I cannot count how many times management has stated that as bad as the pay or the benefits are now, that things will improve after "merely" three or four years of service. A lot of examiners do not understand why they should wait four years to earn a particular salary, when they can leave the agency and obtain that same salary today in the private sector. I have even heard one manager state "Don't worry, the years will fly by in no time."

Posted by: Moose at November 2, 2007 11:01 AM

I too was an examiner a long long time ago. At that time, examiner's could go for a higher GS by becoming a technology expert, by doing extra studying, etc. One examiner in particular was an acknowledged expert in her field and was invited to scientific conferences. This provided her with enhanced expertise and the ability to interact with scientists in this field helped both parties. Also, this reinforces the idea that examiners are professionals. I think sending examiners to conferences (e.g., ACS, etc.) would help with retention alot. The 2 year probation is nuts. BTW, POPA was the same way back when I was there too.

Posted by: Joyce at November 2, 2007 11:12 AM

I agree with every point you make except for #4. Having the dual monitor decreases the amount of paper I need to print because it make is easier to write an Office Action on one screen, with my docket behind it and EAST (with my references I'm using) open on the other screen. At a minimum, an examiner has to have three programs open while writing an Office Action unless they print out everything that they need before hand which is just a waste of time and paper. It's a waste of time to constantly be tabbing between programs on one screen. Especially if you use PALM and have your e-mail open too. It may not seem like much, but over the course of writing up say, 80-100 Office Actions (my average for one quarter) it gets tedious, annoying and just an overall pain. The monitors have surely made the process easier for us.

As for the laptops, you have to keep in mind the variety of Examiners we have at the Office -- age, lifestyle, how far they live from the office, if they have children etc. etc. There was a very large portion of Examiners who never worked paid OT because they simply couldn't get to the Office on weekends or couldn't work more than 8 hour days during the week (kids, travel, school etc.). Having a laptop at home with VPN access to your desktop at the Office has increased the percentage of Examiner's working paid-OT a lot. I know a few personally who love it. I love it because I'm in grad school right now and it just makes getting my production and overtime in a lot easier. I'm not sure of what the exact percent increase of paid-OT is, but I did hear managment would be giving us these statistics before the end of next quarter.

Also, working in a system with an outdated production system allows Examiners to have more flexibility with how they chose to play "catch up". I know this may not be an entirely good reason to promote the laptop incentive, but most Examiner's would much rather put in any voluntary OT needed in the comfort of their home (and pajamas!) instead of their windowless drab offices at the PTO.

Posted by: examinethis2007 at November 2, 2007 11:53 AM

Jordan:

I enjoyed your insights on why the USPTO can't seem to keep its patent examiners. Mr. Scrooge would be proud! I cross-posted on your piece to http://blog.innovators-network.org The Innovators Network is a non-profit dedicated to bringing technology to startups, small businesses, non-profits, venture capitalists and intellectual property experts. Please visit us and help grow our community!

Best wishes for continued success,

Anthony Kuhn
Innovators Network

Posted by: Anthony Kuhn at November 2, 2007 2:27 PM

My name says it all, 20+ years and counting. I work in HELL. Worst managers anywhere on earth. Are there no laws in US that can be brought against these guys for bad treatment, arrogance and incompetency? I don't even know how they are chosen...yes, I do....bum-sucking. The office is spiraling downwards in great haste...more strength to them.

Posted by: Fed up at November 4, 2007 8:06 PM

Man, I'm glad I left. It is obvious to any engineering grad after a short stay at the PTO that it really is more of a legal job profession than an engineering profession. I was back in the 3 week patent academy days. I couldn't imagine an 8 month training period. What does the SPE do now?

Posted by: Eric N. at December 28, 2007 4:59 PM

Fed up. Do what I did. Get your registration number.

Theres a reason 70% of examiner leave the PTO in first 5 years. Its because the PTO is running a sweatshop. The numbers dont lie.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/07/AR2007100701199.html

Posted by: 70% leave pto at July 26, 2008 5:43 AM

I'm not persuaded on point #3. You say that "Examiners are paid less than engineers and less than patent agents." Have you seen examiner salaries lately?

Primaries start at a base salary of $107854, and they get significant overtime and bonuses. Primaries that are Expert Examiners can make up to $173470 with bonuses (3% SAA, $5000 per quarter on FG). SPEs make roughly $140000 to $165000 with bonus, and they don't even do any real work. On top of all this the market value of a GS-14 or GS-15 examiner's (with many years of experience) retirement annuity is somewhere on the order of $1.0 to 1.6 million.

How many engineers or agents are making that kind of money?

Posted by: Mike at October 29, 2008 7:13 PM

That said, I left to become an agent. You can't pay me enough to work for such incompetent fools.

Posted by: Mike at October 31, 2008 6:31 AM

I too work for the PTO. There are a lot of problems there. The SPE's are very arrogant and most don't know the art themselves. Most think you have to find a carbon copy of the application with the exact same words. The pto's software sucks, its very outdated. Most of the time it doesn't work. Attorneys call non-stop but they are part of the problem, they can't understand the art at all. You tell them that your prior art reads on there's they say "you don't have these same words in your patent or its from a different field of endeavor" usually when they say that, they don't have a clue. So when you get the amendment its the same thing again, they only change one word. Then you have 50 pages of arguments that you have to respond to. A lot of times they try to hide what the invention is. I don't understand why they aren't upfront so that we can find some art against there's and they can amend around it to get their patent.

Posted by: John Doe at February 26, 2009 9:32 PM

I too work for the PTO. There are a lot of problems there. The SPE's are very arrogant and most don't know the art themselves. Most think you have to find a carbon copy of the application with the exact same words. The pto's software sucks, its very outdated. Most of the time it doesn't work. Attorneys call non-stop but they are part of the problem, they can't understand the art at all. You tell them that your prior art reads on there's they say "you don't have these same words in your patent or its from a different field of endeavor" usually when they say that, they don't have a clue. So when you get the amendment its the same thing again, they only change one word. Then you have 50 pages of arguments that you have to respond to. A lot of times they try to hide what the invention is. I don't understand why they aren't upfront so that we can find some art against there's and they can amend around it to get their patent.

Posted by: John Doe at February 26, 2009 9:34 PM

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Posted by: vahila at March 9, 2009 10:12 PM

"Not only did he give all of the wrong answers, he went on to insult both her and the patent office. So, in response, she wrote DO NOT HIRE in big bold letters across his application. A month later she ran into him at the office; turns out that he was a proud new patent examiner."

Maybe she really was that ugly and the hiring coordinator knew that the insult to the PTO was him merely stating a fact. That displayed that he was a good fact finder and reporter and such skills are necessary lol. Perhaps your friend didn't know what the right answers were, or, by his saying all the wrong things they became the right things because he was just that persuasive.

Just a thought.

Posted by: 6000 at March 10, 2009 6:31 PM

Interesting comment:

"I left to become an agent. You can't pay me enough to work for such incompetent fools."

kind of like the following link's point on "Patent Examiner and the Big Bang Theory", is this true?

http://just-n-examiner.livejournal.com/40732.html?view=1274652#t1274652

Posted by: john doe ii at February 2, 2010 9:54 AM