Report reveals brain drain fears

A survey from Accenture shows that almost 40 percent of workers believe their agency would make no attempt to learn from their experience and skills.

Almost 40 percent of federal employees believe that when they retire, the government will make no effort to record their expertise and experience, according to a private sector survey released Tuesday.

The study of 40- to 50-year-old employees was conducted in March for the international consulting firm Accenture. Collecting knowledge from retiring employees could be an imminent problem, with 30 percent of the federal workforce eligible to retire in the next five years. The retirement wave will be even larger in some agencies. According to Accenture, 66 percent of all civilian employees in the Defense Department will be eligible to retire in 2006.

In the survey, federal employees were asked if they believe the transfer of their knowledge would be a small informal discussion, a one- or two-week process, a months-long intensive progression, or would not happen at all. Workers also were able to respond that they did not know how the transfer of knowledge would occur.

According to Accenture, 39 percent of federal employees said they did not expect any knowledge transfer. Almost 20 percent of employees selected the informal discussion option, and the same amount chose the one- or two-week process. Just 16 percent of federal workers predicted the transfer of knowledge would be a months-long, intensive process. Only 7 percent said they did not know.

"The aging workforce and the impending brain drain have been discussed fairly widely," said Linh Nguyen, a partner in Accenture's U.S. government group with a focus on human capital issues. "I think that it is a pressing problem, and what this survey does a good job of doing is, it gets to the real issue. It's not just people leaving; it's the lack of succession planning and knowledge capture."

Nguyen said the agency must plan for the government of the future, not simply to replace the existing workforce. But he said also that allowing crucial knowledge to leave with a stream of retiring employees would be a blow to any agency. The problem, he said, is "completely within the means and the ability of any agency." Nguyen called for focused and sustained support from senior officials.

Retiring federal employees "have a lot of knowledge about how things are done, and they hold critical positions in the agency. As those people walk out the door, does the agency have a plan in place?" Nguyen asked. "After years and years of talking and worrying about it … I think a lot of agencies will find themselves without employees with the institutional knowledge."

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