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.

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