The Aging–and Retiring–Federal Workforce

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By on May 7, 2008 in Human Resources with 0 Comments

If you were a big fan of the Beatles singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand”; you remember President Kennedy addressing the nation during the Cuban missile crisis; and you recall seeing Governor George Wallace standing in the door at the University of Alabama to block integration of the public school system on a black and white television set, you are older than most Americans. But many federal employees do recall these events because they were alive, and old enough to remember when they occurred.

The early baby boomers turned 18 about 1964 and many of them started working for the federal government in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. These long time federal employees are now entering their 6th decade. Many are in leadership positions in federal agencies.

That is a problem. Increasingly, we are hearing phrases such as: “Brain drain” or “retirement tsunami” being used to describe the current state of federal employment.

One observer of Uncle Sam’s current state is the Partnership for Public Service. The organization is waving a verbal red flag to try and get the attention of Congress and the public about the gray-haired federal employee population—many of whom will decide to walk out the door and head for the beach, the golf course or a mountain retreat in the near future. And, when they walk out the door of the federal building and turn in their employee ID card, who will be there to accomplish the multiplicity of jobs performed by Uncle Sam’s civilian army?

So how bad is the impending “retirement tsunami”?

  • The average federal employee is getting old. The average federal employee is 46 and that is still getting higher each year.
  • The civil service has far more employees over age 45 (58 percent) than the private sector (41 percent).
  • Federal employees are leaving government service in increasing numbers. From fiscal years 2002 to 2006, annual separations of permanent full-time employees increased from 5 to 6.7 percent and the number of full-time permanent employees who voluntarily retired increased from about 30,300 annually to more than 45,000.

The Partnership says that by 2012, federal agencies will lose about 530,000 employees. As one might expect from older employees, many of these folks are in leadership positions. Moreover, while the federal government’s “reinvention” initiative of the 1990’s reduced the size of the federal workforce by nearly 400,000 positions and left agencies with critical skills gaps.

Part of the problem, and one that our readers have previously identified, is that the federal hiring process is slow, inefficient and sometimes indecipherable to anyone who may be interested in becoming a federal employee. And, while those within government are often aware of the important role of the federal government, the public perception of government employment sometimes resembles a Dilbert cartoon in the minds of the prospective employees.

The government also has several arguments that attract new employees. Americans see federal jobs as being much more secure than those in the private sector and the benefits are often comparable or better than in private companies. (See “Uncle Sam as an Employer: Attractive Prospects But Execution is Questionable“)

The Partnership says that several things have to happen within agencies:

  • Develop and implement workforce plans that identify and meet future talent needs, with OPM maintaining its leadership role.
  • Modify recruiting strategies to attract new talent, including at the mid- and senior- levels.
  • Streamline hiring processes, and make greater use of recruitment, retention, and relocation incentives, including student loan repayments.
  • Focus on retention, including taking steps to improve employee satisfaction, and strategically using workforce flexibilities to help retain experienced talent.
  • Congress needs to enact legislation to allow retired federal employees to return to government part-time and still retain their pensions.

As one of our authors pointed out recently in “A Shift Will Happen in the Future,” attitudes about older employees are changing and many retirees from private industry will want to work for the government–if only to take advantage of the health benefits or the Thrift Savings Plan offered to federal employees.

But the reality of aging isn’t going to go away. Our nation’s government needs to attract and to hire college graduates. Look for changes in benefits or new legislation to make it easier to hire new people as the problem becomes more acute.

© 2020 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47