Double Whammy

SSA has less staff to provide more retirement services to the public.

As 78 million baby boomers near retirement, the Social Security Administration faces double trouble; not only will it have to provide benefit and pension services to this large retiree population, it also must address a retirement wave within its own workforce.

While many federal agencies have not yet been shaken by the mass exodus of seasoned workers projected in the next eight years, Social Security expects its retirements to peak by 2010. Currently, about 25 percent of its 61,000 employees are eligible to retire, including 60 percent of senior executives. "The retirement wave has doubled for us," says Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for human resources and chief human capital officer at Social Security. "As the baby boomers are retiring and moving into more leisure activities, they are coming to us to register for that retirement, and our employees are retiring in record numbers."

According to the Office of Personnel Management, Social Security is on par with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Housing and Urban Development Department for the highest number of retirements projected through 2012. But given the unique workforce and workload challenges Social Security faces with the baby boom retirement wave, Wells chalks up the talent drain as "pretty dramatic."

"Our workforce is the lowest it's been since the [1974] supplemental Social Security income came into being," Wells says. "We're down to 61,000 employees, down from 85,000 at one point."

Social Security employees tend to be more versed in preparing for retirement than other federal workers, and that could be one major reason for the agency's high retirement numbers, according to Wells. Besides having a mission that focuses heavily on retirement, Social Security also holds special fairs that educate and update agency employees on issues like literacy and financial planning. "Because of the business we're in, people tend to think a little bit more about retirement," he says. "A lot of our folks are more educated and informed than the general public might be."

Wells says the biggest challenge posed by mass retirements is having the budget to backfill jobs. "A lot of agencies are experiencing that dynamic-losing people in droves, but they can only replenish them in a trickle," he says.

And while Congress has offered Social Security a bigger budget and more staffing flexibilities, Wells says, the agency still cannot replace every position one for one, and it's the commissioner's and managers' responsibility to pinpoint where the most urgent hiring needs are. By far, the greatest need has been replacing every retiring employee responsible for disability cases, Wells says, given the increased workload and a backlog of more than 750,000 disability cases.

For other positions, Social Security looks at its mission-critical occupations and projects and tracks the potential for attrition. "If we think we're going to lose a mission-critical position, we're more aggressive with our recruiting," he says.

The agency also has worked to boost its retention efforts with its All Ages, All Stages program, which reaches out to the four generations that currently make up its workforce. Depending on where employees are in their careers, the agency provides them with information, counseling and assistance. "That translates into them being supported, and people end up working a little longer for us than they have to," Wells says.

Despite the challenges posed by retirements, Social Security's strong mission as well as its recognition in surveys as one of the top 10 agencies to work in government has helped the agency boast strong retention rates, according to Wells. In 2007, for example, 1,600 employees were recognized for 40 years of service, while other employees were honored for as much as 60 years of service, he says.

"We've been fortunate in that we have pretty strong retention numbers that run ahead of the government average," Wells says. "But we always knock on wood because we don't want to rest on our laurels."

The souring U.S. economy also might take some of the pressure off, at least for the near future. "The economy has been such that people may not be leaving as quickly as they were," says John Crum, director of the Office of Policy and Evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board. "It doesn't mean that they won't leave in the next several years; it means that when people are eligible to retire, they have to look into their viability to retire."

Wells says that in fiscal 2008, Social Security lost about 2,000 employees due to retirements, one-third less than the 3,000 the agency originally projected. "There might be a slight downturn in retirements," he says. "With the economy and gas prices-all of that is bearing on people's decision to retire or not retire."

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