Sticking Around

Retirement surge and empty pipeline fears mostly are unfounded.

In 2000, the outlook for the federal workforce looked bleak to many observers. They predicted a retirement flood and an empty pipeline to fill the vacant positions left in its wake. Today, it's clear that retirements have moved along at an even, manageable pace and new hires this decade have created a healthy supply of future leaders.

It turns out there was a bit of unnecessary hysteria at the turn of the decade, driven by worst-case-scenario predictions that suggested baby boomers would retire en masse as soon as they were eligible and that the "best and brightest" wanted to work anywhere but the federal government. As time has gone on and the overly pessimistic projections have proved wrong, workforce watchers have developed more conservative projections that better reflect reality.

Take retirement statistics, for example. The Office of Personnel Management in its 2001 retirement report predicted that 61,682 full-time permanent federal employees would retire in fiscal 2006-a 4.1 percent rate. Three years later, in 2004, OPM reduced its projection to 55,508 retirees, a 3.5 percent rate. The actual retirements for fiscal 2006, which OPM recently released, were 58,583, or 3.7 percent. In 2004, OPM predicted that the retirement rate would remain at about 3.7 percent to 3.8 percent for the remainder of the decade. That seems likely, at this point. That rate would produce a manageable number of vacancies for which agencies can recruit new workers.

As far as the recruitment worries at the beginning of the decade, they thankfully have proved unwarranted. Perhaps economic slowdown helped. The boom of the late 1990s, particularly in the technology field, had federal agency chiefs very concerned about getting good people for highly important jobs. But, in general, agencies find themselves awash in candidates for most jobs that they promote effectively. Last year, the government hired 96,353 people from outside the federal workforce and has been hiring at a similar clip throughout the decade. The quit rate in 2006 was 2.6 percent across government, a favorable number that says federal service is holding on to workers.

Much is made of the graying of the federal workforce and of concerns accompanying an aging employee population. But one underappreciated point is that the government has become a destination for midcareer workers, not only for recent graduates. In fact, 52,696 of the new hires in 2006-about 54 percent-were 35 or over. That and the fact that people are putting off retirement (in part because they are living longer, healthier lives) are key reasons for the graying of the workforce. An increase in the average age of federal workers does not mean a retirement surge is in the works; it's more likely a permanent change. Rather than preparing for massive exits, federal managers should be thinking about how best to use older workers who are going to be clocking in each morning for many years to come.

Brian Friel is now a National Journal staff correspondent and covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.