Now, many of those controllers are hitting their mandatory retirement age of 56. This is perhaps one of the most dramatic, and urgent, challenges posed by the growing wave of departures.
About a third of the 12,700 controllers who direct planes at airports across the country could leave today, the GAO says. In three years, half the force will be eligible. The Federal Aviation Administration has stepped up hiring in recent years, bringing on about 750 new controllers a year.
But new hires, who start as apprentices, require between three and five years of training before they are considered fully qualified. More a third of the current workforce has been on the job less than five years, according to the air traffic controllers union.
“It’s a young person’s occupation,” said Patricia Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “But an overwhelming number of them are inexperienced.”
And hiring stopped altogether when automatic federal spending cuts took effect March 1.
The Social Security Administration, meantime, could be headed to what its personnel chief calls “a perfect storm.”
Even as the overall American population is aging and making more disability claims, many of the agency’s administrative law judges, who rule on disputed claims, are themselves heading toward retirement. The average age of these judges is 59. Two out of three will be eligible to retire in 2016, the GAO says.
Since the job pays especially well by federal standards, many of the agency’s 1,500 judges serve well beyond the retirement age. But the retirement rate is creeping up, and Reginald Wells, the SSA’s human resources chief, said the agency is already feeling the effect. “We’re losing more judges than we’re replacing,” he said.
A surge in disability claims with fewer judges to handle appeals of rejected ones has created a backlog, with wait times of 375 days on average, according to government audits. About 90 judges have retired so far this year, and not all their posts will be filled, Wells said.
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With no government-wide plan in place to deal with projected retirements, individual agencies have been making their own preparations, and the GAO has found alarming inconsistences.
Angela Bailey, the Office of Personnel Management’s chief human capital officer, said it’s crucial for every agency to put a priority on training up-and-coming managers. “No matter what your budget is, you’ve got to set aside dollars to invest in the current workforce to make sure they’re operationally ready to succeed into leadership positions.”
But to achieve the 5 percent budget cuts required by sequestration, almost every agency made reductions in training and hiring. Many zeroed them out.
Some agencies have done a much better job of planning for retirements than others. NASA, for instance, gets high marks from personnel experts for reinvigorating its recruitment campaign. Engineers who can design and develop unmanned rockets are in demand, replacing the flight engineers and payload specialists who worked on shuttles.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, has come under repeated criticism from GAO auditors for its haphazard planning. The agency’s most recent plan for hiring, training and developing talent expired in 2009. The GAO said in March that the lack of planning is jeopardizing the department’s mission of promoting affordable housing.
A HUD official said that department officials are responding to the criticism by ramping up their planning for staffing vacant positions — but that not every opening can be filled.
“Maybe people had one thing in their portfolio before,” Karen Newton Cole, deputy chief human capital officer, said. “We now need to train them to have two or three things.”
To encourage seasoned employees to stay on the job, Congress approved a “phased retirement” policy 18 months ago. For the first time, retirees could continue working half-time while they receive a partial annuity. In return, they would mentor and train potential successors.
The rules are still awaiting approval.