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WASHINGTON � From 2002 to 2006, one patent examiner left the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office for nearly every two the agency hired, according to a report by the General Accountability Office, making it unlikely the agency can reduce a growing patent application backlog through hiring efforts alone. The GAO, in a report to Congress, said the attrition represents a “significant loss to the agency” because 70 percent of those who left had been at the agency for less than five years and new patent examiners are primarily responsible for the actions that remove applications from the backlog. USPTO relies on a workforce of nearly 5,000 patent examiners � attorneys, engineers, and other scientific and technical professionals � to review and make decisions on patent applications. USPTO management said patent examiners leave the agency primarily for personal reasons, such as the job not being a good fit or family reasons. But the GAO said 67 percent of patent examiners identified the agency’s production goals as one of the primary reasons examiners may choose to leave. The 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. The GAO also said 70 percent of patent examiners reported working unpaid overtime during the past year, in order to meet their production goals. “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does not agree, the root of this high level of attrition appears to be the stress resulting from the agency’s outdated production goals,” the GAO said. “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.” The patent application backlog has been growing for over 15 years � since fiscal year 2002 alone, the backlog has increased by nearly 73 percent to about 730,000 applications. The GAO reported that since 2000, USPTO has used a variety of tools to help recruit and retain patent examiners in numbers sufficient to meet the demand for patents. Those tools have included the use of recruitment bonuses, law school tuition reimbursement, and a casual dress policy. The agency is hiring as many new patent examiners as it has the annual capacity to supervise and train. The GAO, which was asked to review the hiring situation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, recommended the USPTO do a comprehensive evaluation of how it establishes production goals and revise them as appropriate. Even with its increased hiring estimates of 1,200 patent examiners each year for the next five years, USPTO’s patent application backlog will continue to grow, said the GAO, and is expected to increase to over 1.3 million at the end of fiscal year 2011. According to USPTO estimates, even if the agency were able to hire 2,000 patent examiners per year in fiscal year 2007 and each of the next 5 years, the backlog would continue to increase by about 260,000 applications to 953,643 at the end of fiscal year 2011. “The agency has acknowledged that it cannot hire its way out of the backlog despite its recent increases in hiring, and is now focused on slowing the growth of the backlog instead of reducing it,” reported the GAO.

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