Wave of retirements hits federal workforce

The Washington PostAugust 31, 2013 

— A wave of retirements by senior federal employees has begun rolling across the government as aging baby boomers who held onto their jobs during the economic downturn are increasingly calling it quits.

With retirement accounts on the rebound, many veteran workers are finding little reason to remain in government, especially as agency budgets are slashed, workers are furloughed and morale is tumbling.

The number of executive branch employees retiring this fiscal year, which ends next month, is on track to be nearly twice the total who retired in 2009, according to government figures. And the rate looks certain to accelerate. In 2000, about 94,000 people 60 and older worked for the government. Last year, the number was 262,000.

The exits are helping to bring down the size of the federal payroll and – where funding is available – could afford agencies the chance to hire younger workers with crucial skills. For instance, the retirement of clerks could make way for experts in cybersecurity and information technology.

But among those leaving are also many with expertise that cannot easily be replaced – for instance, nuclear physicists at the Energy Department and a large cohort of air traffic controllers who were hired three decades ago. And with most hiring on hold, the departures are already reshaping agencies that cannot replace most of the retirees or mentor and train new executives.

In some corners of government, the challenge is acute. By 2016, 42 percent of the Department of Housing and Urban Development workforce will be eligible to retire. At the Small Business Administration, it’s 44 percent.

There is no mandatory retirement age for most civilian federal employees. But retiring is looking ever more attractive, employees say, with their salaries frozen for three years by Congress and public service demonized by many politicians.

“It finally got to the point where I got disillusioned,” said Richard Swensen, 60, who retired from the Agriculture Department last year after 38 years. “You get weary of the bureaucrat-bashing.”

Today’s federal civil servants are much grayer than they were a decade ago. Their average age is 47 – four years older than the overall workforce.

Retirements have fluctuated since the mid-1990s. The numbers surged when the Clinton administration offered early retirement incentives as part of a push to “reinvent government.” After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government ramped up its hiring for national security positions, and federal payrolls swelled.

‘This is a good time to go’

Baby boomers began trickling out in about 2005, but the financial crisis and deep recession that hit a couple of years later discouraged many from leaving. Departures from the executive branch bottomed out in 2009. They have been increasing ever since and are on track to exceed 80,000 retirements – about 5 percent of the workforce – by the end of the fiscal year, according to figures from the Office of Personnel Management. It’s already the largest outflow in at least two decades.

“The stock markets have recovered,” said Gregory Parham, assistant secretary for administration at the Agriculture Department. “And many people are thinking, ‘This is a good time to go.’ ”

In addition, about 34,000 Postal Service employees have retired in this fiscal year through July, with many taking early-out incentives. Add to that the swelling numbers of younger federal workers who have been leaving government, discouraged by public disdain, furloughs and budget austerity.

By 2016, more than a third of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire, according to the Government Accountability Office, which has put the pending loss of so many experienced workers on its “high-risk” list of management challenges for government.

Among them will be nearly three in five senior executives and almost half the ranks of top managers.

Inconsistent preparations

With no governmentwide plan in place to deal with projected retirements, individual agencies have been making their own preparations, and the GAO has found alarming inconsistencies.

Angela Bailey, the Office of Personnel Management’s chief human capital officer, said it’s crucial for every agency to put a priority on training up-and-coming managers. “No matter what your budget is, you’ve got to set aside dollars to invest in the current workforce to make sure they’re operationally ready to succeed into leadership positions.”

But to achieve the 5 percent budget cuts required by sequestration, almost every agency made reductions in training and hiring. Many zeroed them out.

Some agencies have done a much better job of planning for retirements than others. NASA, for instance, gets high marks from personnel experts for reinvigorating its recruitment campaign. Engineers who can design and develop unmanned rockets are in demand, replacing the flight engineers and payload specialists who worked on the space shuttles.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, has come under repeated criticism from GAO auditors for its haphazard planning. The agency’s most recent plan for hiring, training and developing talent expired in 2009. The GAO said in March that the lack of planning is jeopardizing the department’s mission of promoting affordable housing.

A HUD official said that department officials are responding to the criticism by ramping up their planning for staffing vacant positions, but that not every opening can be filled.

“Maybe people had one thing in their portfolio before,” Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer Karen Newton Cole said. “We now need to train them to have two or three things.”

To encourage seasoned employees to stay on the job, Congress 18 months ago approved a “phased retirement” policy. For the first time, retirees could continue working half-time while they receive a partial annuity. In return, they would mentor and train potential successors. The rules are still awaiting approval.

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