Union retirement ticker tracks federal loss of institutional knowledge

August 19, 2013

Forty-six days of experience every second. That’s how much institutional knowledge disappears from the government every second because of federal-worker retirements, according to a new ticker from the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

The group said its tracker illustrates a retirement-induced “brain drain” at a time when agencies have cut back on hiring and Congress has frozen salary rates partly in response to rhetoric about supposedly bloated and malfunctioning bureaucracies.

On Monday evening, the counter showed more than 923 million hours of experience lost in 2013.

“Each time we lose another federal worker, we also lose his or her expertise on issues that are vital to our country’s protection and advancement,” NARFE said in a statement.

Data from the Office of Personnel Management show that more than 82,000 federal workers have filed retirement claims since January, representing an increase of 30 percent from the same period last year. The agency has said a sizable bump in retirements for the financially struggling U.S. Postal Service has contributed to the rise, adding more than 20,000 claims in the first three months of this year.

OPM reported in 2012 that the average total of experience for both military and civilian personnel was about 27 years, meaning the new retirees this year have taken more than 2 million years of experience with them.

Relief may be on the way with the government’s new phased-retirement program, which allows federal workers to work part-time past the age of retirement eligibility while receiving partial annuities and continuing to pay toward their benefits. The draft rules, which OPM is expected to finalize this year, would require participants to spend at least 20 percent of their work hours mentoring potential successors.

OPM rules allow workers to retire with less than 27 years of service. For example, a 62-year-old employee can retire with benefits from the Federal Employee Retirement System after five years with the government, while a 60-year-old can retire with benefits after 20 years.

Richard Johnson, the director of the Urban Institute’s program on retirement policy, said federal retirement plans also have some built-in incentives for people to leave government jobs early, such as penalties for working past a certain age.

“Governments at all levels have traditionally had plans that encourage people to retire early, so they are losing experienced workers,” he said. “Add on top of that the challenges they’re facing right now, and a lot of people are probably thinking it makes sense to collect this relatively good pension and go work somewhere else.”

But NARFE argues that federal furloughs, frozen pay rates and a negative attitude toward the federal workforce from Congress may be encouraging workers to retire prematurely.

“They’re tired of ongoing attacks from the same people who have asked them to do these jobs in the first place,” said Jessica Klement, a spokeswoman for the association.

The retirement wave is not unique to the federal government. The number of Americans aged 65 years or older will double to 80 million over the next three decades, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity, a think tank that studies the challenges facing future seniors. That means the U.S. workforce is on the cusp of a retirement boom.

NARFE said in its statement that a shrinking federal workforce has placed greater pressure on agencies as they lose experienced employees.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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