Agencies are anticipating massive spikes in employees with retirement eligibility in the next five years.
Nearly 1.5 in ten federal employees are eligible to retire today, according to data maintained by the government’s human resources office, though in five years that number will spike to three in 10.
Federal officials have for years warned of a pending “retirement wave” as employees in the baby boomer generation reach pension eligibility, but the spike has been slow to materialize. Total retirements across government have ticked up slightly over the last decade, but have dipped for three consecutive years. Voluntary retirements have also ticked down in recent years, but have jumped by 18 percent over the last decade.
All told, about 14 percent of federal employees are currently eligible to retire, according to data provided to Government Executive by the Office of Personnel Management. In five years, that is expected to jump to 30 percent. As each of the last several presidential administrations has focused on recruiting younger employees and mandating adequate succession planning, some agencies are in better shape than others.
The Housing and Urban Development Department has the highest rate of employees eligible to retire of any major agency in government, at nearly 24 percent. In five years, that will spike to nearly half its workforce, or 45 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency and NASA are the only other agencies with more than 20 percent of employees eligible to retire. NASA is also set to face the largest growth of any agency in employees who can separate from federal service with full benefits by 2023, when 44 percent of workers will be eligible.
Employees are considered “retirement eligible” when they can receive full benefits under either the Federal Employees Retirement System or the Civil Service Retirement System.
The Small Business Administration has the least to worry about from any pending wave. Just one in 10 employees are currently eligible to retire, and that will grow to one in five by 2023. The Homeland Security Department is also in good shape, with just 10 percent able to retire today.
While overall voluntary retirements have increased, the agencies with the most graying workforces have not yet realized any significant repercussions. At HUD, for example, retirements in fiscal 2017 were actually at their lowest point in eight years. NASA retirements have been steady for several years, though at EPA they jumped by 46 percent last year.
Still, the issue is drawing widespread attention. Lawmakers and officials have pushed new efforts to recruit young employees, and agencies have incorporated a potential employee exodus into their strategic plans and risk assessments.
“There's nothing more effective than showing the staff the upward trend in retirement eligibility” to get it to focus on the long-feared wave as a risk the agency must anticipate, Tom Brandt, the Internal Revenue Service’s chief risk officer recently told Government Executive. More than one in five IRS employees are currently eligible to retire.
About 58,000 federal employees voluntarily retired in fiscal 2017, according to OPM data, compared to 39,000 a decade ago. Annual voluntary retirements peaked in that period in fiscal 2014, when 61,000 employees separated.
Charles S. Clark and Ross Gianfortune contributed to this story.