How Agencies Can Address the Aging Workforce Gap

Nearly one-third of federal employees are eligible for retirement, yet only 28 percent of the current workforce is under 40 years old.

Let this remarkable fact sink in: Nearly one-third of federal employees are eligible for retirement, yet only 28 percent of the current workforce is under 40 years old.

How can this possibly work out?

One out of every three people sitting at a desk in every government office across the country will be gone when they decide to turn in their federal IDs and head into retirement, and the next wave of retirees won’t be far behind them.

As a prime example, at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, 61 percent of NASA employees are eligible to retire in next 10 years. This means three out of every five seats at NASA will be empty in the next decade without a huge wave of reinforcements.

With the Trump administration working to streamline government, agencies will have to figure out how to do things differently. When changes in agency operations are combined with the impending workforce gap, many organizations are going to be left in a challenging position.

But there are options available to solve this workforce gap that is only going to grow wider. For starters, we need to put more emphasis on integrating the millennial generation into the federal government, as well as rely more heavily on government contractors.

The Millennials Are Coming

Millennials, right? It’s a word that raises visions of hashtags, Instagram posts and emojis for many older workers, along with a relatively low opinion about what this younger generation brings to the table. We seem to forget that we were all once young. Millennials are going to be the future of our federal workforce and the sooner we get used to that idea, the better.  

Part of the problem is that, as with every generation, millennials represent change to an entity that was built on a foundation of consistency. Today many younger employees are looking to make a difference and an immediate impact. As we move forward, the older generation must adjust how they onboard younger employees and provide an environment that becomes attractive to them as a career path.

At NASA, over the next 10 to 15 years, more than 6,000 employees will be asked to step up to the highest levels of the agency; provide the agency’s strategic direction, planning and management; backfill over 10,000 vacancies; provide most if not all of the agency expertise; and advise future leaders on space policy, system development and operations, and much more.

That’s a lot of responsibility for a generation that we haven’t taken seriously enough. And those figures are for just one agency. Multiply those needs across every agency and you begin to understand the looming problem.

We need to embrace what millennials are looking for, adjust older policies to make the federal government an appealing place to work for this generation, and begin training them for the massive responsibilities that will shortly be put upon their shoulders.

Think about the perks afforded to millennials in the private sector. A flexible work week with robust telework options. A more casusal working environment. A generation that values the quality of their work compared to clocking in a set amount of hours at their desks every day. Do these sound all that bad?

Incorporating more modern ideas into the federal workforce will not only contribute to closing the workforce gap, but it could also lead to a more satisfied workforce at every level.

The millennials aren’t our only option though, we have a procurement process that, with improvement, could help the government continue to fill the workforce gap.

As it currently stands, it takes a year or longer for an acquisition to go into effect. This is too long. By working to make this process more efficient and streamlined, though, the government would have a large additional pool of workers to choose from.

Contractors Can Help

According to Brookings, the best estimate of the number of for-profit contractors in the federal government is 7.5 million, as of 2013. This is about 2.5 million more contractors than during the Eisenhower administration, a recently-popular benchmark for looking at the size of our government workforce.

Comparatively, the federal workforce has stayed at approximately the same size for the past 57 years.

The sheer number of contractors the federal government relies on is massive. Coming from the public sector, this is a community I think the government should look to more.

Even beyond simple workforce needs, fostering public private partnerships can lead to organic innovation that doesn’t always happen when the private and public sectors are siloed and independent. Collaboration between industry and government partners will be key to modernization moving forward.

By better tapping the potential of millennials and contractors, government can close the workforce gap and position agencies to successfully deliver on their missions for the American people.

John Marinaro is vice president of the Federal Civilian Division at KeyLogic. He formerly served as director of safety engineering technical excellence at NASA.