October 7, 2009
The retirement tsunami that was expected to hit the federal workforce this decade has not come ashore. But it's still worth managers' time to do their own forecasts so they're not surprised by foreseeable events that could affect their hiring and retention plans.
In 2000, federal workforce observers warned repeatedly that half the civil service could retire in 10 years, creating a brain drain across agencies. Spread out over a decade, that would mean 5 percent of the workforce would retire annually. In reality, the retirement rate peaked in fiscal 2006 and 2007 at 3.7 percent. In fiscal 2008, the rate dropped to 3.3 percent, according to data on the Office of Personnel Management's FedScope Web site that tracks the workforce. Overall, that's a manageable retirement rate.
Even a 5 percent retirement rate is manageable-as long as federal managers see it coming. Then they can plan ahead by encouraging some employees to retire earlier, for example, so vacancies come gradually rather than all at once. They also can boost hiring a couple years before higher retirement rates, so younger employees have sufficient time on the job before their mentors head out to start collecting their pensions.
To get a sense of how your agency's workforce is shaped for the future, go to FedScope at www.fedscope.opm.gov. One option on the site is to examine employment trends during the past five years. For example, look at air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration by age. Controllers often have been cited as one segment of the federal workforce that faces a big uptick in retirements this decade.
The numbers tell a more complicated story. In 2004, only 11.6 percent of FAA air traffic controllers were younger than 35, according to FedScope. More than 22 percent were over 50 and nearly 10 percent were 55 or older, despite the mandatory retirement age of 56 for controllers.
By 2008, the percentage of controllers under 35 had more than doubled to 28 percent, reflecting a spate of new hires during that time period. But controllers over 50 still made up 21 percent of the workforce. Now there is a hole in the middle of the FAA workforce, with controllers between 35 and 49 falling from nearly 40 percent to just under 24 percent. That suggests the agency has lost controllers not only to retirement but also to other forms of attrition like resignations and dismissals. And indeed, looking at the separations data on FedScope, controllers have been resigning at increasingly higher rates during the past four years. Just 47 controllers quit in fiscal 2005, but that went up to 193 in 2007 and 279 in 2008. Retirements declined during the past three years, from 1,730 in 2006 to 1,103 in 2008.
FAA is attracting new controllers to make up for retirements. But why are controllers quitting at ever higher rates?
Forecasting the federal workforce can help managers develop such questions. Then they have to do the hard work of figuring out the answers.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.
October 7, 2009