Hiring After the Baby-Boom Brain Drain

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, says hiring needs to be faster. His group estimates 530,000 federal workers will retire by 2012.
Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, says hiring needs to be faster. His group estimates 530,000 federal workers will retire by 2012. (By Doug Demark)
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By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Federal Aviation Administration. The Social Security Administration. The National Science Foundation. The Treasury Department.

All could lose as much as a quarter of their employees by 2012, mostly because of retirements. They are not alone.

Across the government, about a third of full-time employees will retire in the next five years, according to estimates prepared by the Office of Personnel Management. The turnover could be even higher in the ranks of federal executives and supervisors.

From the start of the Bush administration, agencies have been preparing for the churning that will be caused by the baby boom retirement wave. But there are growing concerns that the government may be at a disadvantage in competing for talent, especially among young people, because of its slow and cumbersome hiring practices.

The topic was part of a discussion at a breakfast yesterday organized by the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government as part of Public Service Recognition Week activities. It also will be discussed at a hearing Thursday scheduled by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on government management, chaired by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii).

One of the witnesses, Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, worries that the government has already lost too many key employees. "Most people talk about the retirement loss as a problem for the future, and I would argue it is a problem of today. We are already seeing that exodus of talent," he said.

The partnership calculates that from fiscal 2002 to 2006, the number of full-time federal employees who filed for retirement increased sharply, from about 30,000 annually to more than 45,000. The OPM has projected that the peak retirement years will be 2008 through 2010, when up to 60,000 employees are projected to leave each year.

By the partnership's reckoning, federal agencies will lose nearly 530,000 employees, many in leadership positions, by 2012. That's a rather alarming number.

The OPM has launched a series of efforts to ramp up federal recruitment efforts. They include television advertisements, upgrades to USAJobs.gov and the development of a 45-day hiring model for most federal jobs.

Congress also has made changes to civil service hiring law, allowing agencies to make hiring offers more quickly and to increase the number of qualified applicants whom managers can consider for a job.

In addition, Congress has authorized agencies to offer student loan reimbursements to top-notch college graduates in hopes of making the government a more attractive employer. Agencies also have been given more leeway in using bonuses to recruit and retain employees. Many of the changes have been championed on a bipartisan basis by Akaka, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Washington area House members.

Many job applicants complain that federal hiring procedures are difficult to understand and that online applications take too much time, requiring answers to too many questions. Congress, for its part, is concerned that agencies are not doing enough to reduce the time it takes to make a hiring decision and to improve feedback to job applicants.

Stier said there has not been an intense enough effort by the government in this area. "As a nation, we recognize, in terms of public support and investment by the government, that we need the right talent in the military," he said. But when it comes to federal employees who protect the borders, inspect food and protect the environment, "we as a nation have not made a similar investment."

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