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How the Agencies With the Oldest Workforces Are Preparing for a Retirement Exodus

Data and recruiting initiatives help, but officials also want more money and people.

Federal officials have been sounding the alarm for years about a pending “retirement wave” as employees in the baby boomer generation reach pension eligibility, so much so that it has become easy to ignore the problem entirely.

At some agencies, however, the issue is coming to a head. Across the federal government, voluntary retirements have spiked 18 percent over the last decade. Currently, about one in seven federal employees is eligible to retire. At a few agencies, that rate jumps to one in five today and nearly half of their workforces in five years.

Nearly one-quarter of employees at the Housing and Urban Development Department are eligible to retire today, the highest rate of any large agency in government. HUD has been thinking about and preparing for it “for quite some time,” according to Suzanne Tufts, the department’s assistant secretary of administration.

Ben Carson, HUD’s secretary, has “directed everyone [in leadership] to make the vibrancy and the succession planning of their workforce not only top of mind, but to start really thinking and cooperating together and working very carefully together to make that a reality,” Tufts said.

Those efforts include weekly meetings attended by Tufts, Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude, Chief Human Capital Officer Towanda Brooks and their staffs to discuss new vacancies and recruitment efforts. HUD has assigned a human resources business partner to each of its program offices to assist hiring managers with organizational design and position management. Officials have gathered detailed information on both the department's mission-critical and high-risk operations to form a hiring strategy. 

“We have very good data on where are people in terms of tenure,” Tufts said. “Each regional office and each program office can overlay that data to see where are the highest risks of potentially losing to retirement a mission-critical person so we can think about where to backfill that.”

HUD is changing the way it markets its positions, working more closely with “mission people” and “not just HR people.” It is using LinkedIn, sending regional directors to college campuses, recruiting spouses on military bases and generally boosting employees' media and technology savviness.

NASA has 21 percent of its employees eligible to retire and that portion will jump to 44 percent in five years, but agency officials are not worried about any coming wave. The agency's work is so interesting, said Katherine Brown, a spokeswoman, that employees like sticking around.

“NASA is consistently ranked the best place to work in the federal government, and employees are highly committed to the mission and because of this, we have some of the lowest attrition rates in the federal government,” Brown said.

The agency does engage in attrition forecasting to help it plan for future workforce needs, but is not anticipating any sudden cause for concern.

“We do expect attrition rates to gradually increase over the next decade due to a higher proportion of retirement eligible employees,” Brown said, “but do not anticipate that we will experience a sudden retirement wave.”

More than one in five Environmental Protection Agency employees are also eligible to retire. A spokesperson also pointed to employees’ dedication to mission as responsible for the higher rate, but said the agency is starting to take action.

“EPA is aware of its workforce demographics and their potential impacts on the agency in the near future,” the spokesperson said. “The agency is taking this significant challenge seriously and is launching agency-wide initiatives focused on workforce planning and succession management. We appreciate the contributions of our career employees and look forward to welcoming a new generation of talented and dedicated environmental professionals.”

At HUD, officials are focusing not just on recruiting new employees, but enticing the current workforce to stick around. They are expanding a mentoring program to help junior employees learn from their more senior colleagues and engaging in other “knowledge transfer and capture” initiatives. The department is using its growing role as a disaster response agency, Tufts said, as a new means to motivate employees and spread expertise.

Tufts has also been encouraged by the feedback HUD officials have received at universities, where studies relevant to the department's mission are expanding.

“There’s so many people on college campuses and so many good programs in urban policy, urban planning, even rural issues,” she said. “The whole issue of disasters and disaster management which wasn’t a form of study in the past is there now. There is a passion.”

HUD’s workforce has shrunk by more than 20 percent since 2009, which Tufts said is actually making it harder to prepare for forthcoming retirements. Strategic planning “does require resources, [both] people and financial,” she noted.

The staffing shortage is also affecting HUD on a broader level. The department’s programmatic funding has increased, she said, pointing to a $28 billion emergency spending surge Congress awarded to HUD in response to Hurricane Maria’s damage in Puerto Rico and other disasters around the country.

“You can’t have good programs without good people and without an adequate number of people,” Tufts said. “We don’t deliver our services with robots and good people don’t fall out of the trees.”

She emphasized that “the passion for housing and housing fairness is out there,” and it was up to her and her team to harness it and attract people to the department. Still, she said she could use a little help from Congress.

“We need money and people, in a nutshell,” Tufts said.