Graying of Workforce Troubles County Governments

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Every year Fairfax County recognizes employees who have served 20, 25, 30, 35 or 40 years on the job. And every year, the number of honorees creeps upward.

On Friday morning, many of the record 610 workers who hit one of these milestones in 2005 filed down the aisles of the Board of Supervisors Auditorium for a handshake from County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, a certificate and a paid day off. More than half marked 20 years; nearly 70 have been on the payroll for at least 30. Their collective tenure, by the county's tally, is 13,895 years.

Local government, like the rest of the Washington region and the country, is getting grayer. The baby boomers' quickening march toward retirement -- they will start turning 65 in 2011 -- and the smaller pool of young people waiting to replace them are beginning to concern officials. A recent report by the International City/County Management Association called the issue "a quiet crisis."

Montgomery County estimates that 50 percent of its senior managers will be eligible for retirement by 2010. By next year, more than 70 percent of Fairfax's top officials will be able to leave and collect benefits. Thirty-one percent of the county's 7,855 nonuniformed, civilian employees will be eligible to depart, along with 22 percent of uniformed public safety workers, primarily police and fire employees.

"When they leave, a great deal of experience and knowledge will leave with them," said Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who has proposed creating a standing committee to deal with a range of issues on aging that the county faces.

The looming losses are considerable. Fairfax County Attorney David P. Bobzien oversees an office of 39 lawyers, 21 of them older than 50 and many starting to consider retirement. The senior counsel for land use cases has reached 30 years of service. Two of the Planning and Zoning Department's three division heads are at retirement age, and the same is true for the senior engineer at the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

"There's an obligation to grow our successors," Griffin said. "We're not going to be here forever."

Putting the next generation in place poses special obstacles for public sector managers. Private corporations have long used "succession planning" as a tool to groom executive talent, but civil service regulations place sharp restrictions on designating heirs apparent.

"You can't say to someone, you're going to be the next county attorney, so please stick around for the next 10 years," Bobzien said. "We have to grow replacements in a very difficult environment."

Officials also face cultural hurdles. Not only is the post-baby boom workforce smaller, but it also tends to hold government service in lower esteem than those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. In focus groups cited in the report by the International City/County Management Association, those from Generation X (born between 1964 and 1977) working in local government regarded those in top jobs as beleaguered, overwhelmed and unable to balance work and family.

Fairfax officials say this generational divide has narrowed in the past couple of years. The security of government service -- especially in the area of benefits -- has become more attractive to younger workers who have seen pension and health care programs slashed in the private sector. Fairfax retains a "defined benefits" program in which employees can expect to know how much they will receive after they retire.

The county has tried various means to retain seasoned workers, some of which have resulted in "double dipping," in which retirees receive pensions and a regular salary. They return to county service in other posts where their skills are a good fit -- police officers as zoning inspectors, for example. Several years ago, in response to criticism, the county placed an 18-month limit on the time a worker can receive both a salary and pension.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company