Federal Retirements Have Stayed Steady Despite Warnings

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By Louis C. LaBrecque

Aug. 2 — The federal “retirement tsunami” that the Office of Personnel Management warned about years ago “sort of never happened,” but agencies still need to plan for a rapidly changing workforce.

That's from Mallory Barg Bulman, director of research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service, who told Bloomberg BNA in a recent interview that many federal employees who are eligible for retirement haven't opted to leave the workforce, contrary to the OPM's prediction during the administration of President George W. Bush that large numbers would leave at the same time.

This doesn't mean, however, that agencies don't need to be concerned about workforce planning, Bulman said.

“You do get to a certain point where it's inevitable” that large numbers of baby boomers will leave their agencies, Bulman said.

Need to Retain Younger Workers

Agencies need to figure out ways to attract and hold on to younger workers, she said.

As of now, workers with 10 or fewer years of service at federal agencies are leaving the government in numbers that exceed any other age group, Bulman said.

“People have other choices,” she said.

And it's “not easy right now for people to come back into government,” particularly if former federal employees want to rejoin the workforce in a job that's different from the one they previously held. This is because federal hiring rules treat those who leave the government similarly to new employees, particularly if the applicant is seeking a different position, Bulman said.

In fiscal year 2015, about 46,500 federal employees with less than 10 years of service left the government, compared with 19,000 employees with between 10 and 19 years of service; 21,000 employees with 20 to 29 years of service; and 29,000 with 30 or more years of service, according to figures collected by the Partnership for Public Service from the OPM.

However, the federal government hired more people in FY 2015 than it lost, Bulman said. In FY 2015, the government hired roughly 122,300 new employees, while a total of about 115,900 federal workers left the government, she said.

In FY 2014, by contrast, the government hired about 92,300 employees while about 119,200 workers left the government, Bulman said.

“One year doesn't make a trend,” but it's encouraging to see that the government is increasing its efforts to replace employees, she said.

The federal executive branch workforce currently numbers just under 2.1 million employees, including about 1.8 million full-time, permanent employees.

The partnership, a Washington-based nonprofit, says its mission is “to revitalize” the federal government “by transforming the way government works and inspiring a new generation to serve.”

Eligibility Exceeds Retirement

An OPM spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA in a recent e-mail that the percentage of federal employees who retire annually has averaged 3.3 percent since 1993.

“Since 1993, the percentage of Federal employees who are retirement eligible has grown from 8.2% to 18.8%, while the percentage who retires has remained steady,” the spokesperson said. “This indicates that, over time, Federal employees are more likely to stay in their jobs even when they are retirement eligible.”

The OPM is taking a number of steps to ensure that institutional knowledge isn't being lost, the spokesperson said.

For example, the OPM has provided guidance to federal agencies on the government's “phased retirement” program. This program allows federal workers to move to half-time employment, while receiving a retirement benefit equal to half what they would have earned under full retirement and continuing to earn retirement credit.

The program generally requires “phased retirees” to mentor employees as a condition for participating, the OPM spokesperson said.

“This tool allows managers to leverage the institutional knowledge and experience that seasoned employees can provide and support knowledge transfer through formal mentoring of junior staff,” the spokesperson said. “It is important to note that individual agencies make the decision whether to implement PR based on their workforce and succession planning needs.”

Improving Federal Hiring

The OPM also is seeking to make it easier to apply for federal jobs, the spokesperson said.

One of the OPM's recent initiatives is to make USAJOBS.gov, the federal hiring website, more accessible. “USAJOBS is now compatible with most mobile devices and OPM is leading efforts to improve how Federal agencies post job opportunities,” the spokesperson said.

In addition, the OPM is cultivating relationships with a number of academic institutions for recruiting purposes, including “minority-serving institutions,” the spokesperson said.

“This year, we are establishing new relationships with colleges and universities with an emphasis in cybersecurity/IT degrees in response to the hiring need for this type of candidate,” the spokesperson said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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