Attrition is high among new workers at many government agencies

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 2:08 AM

As soon as Uncle Sam finds good employees, he loses a bunch of them.

Nearly a quarter of new federal government hires leave their jobs within two years, according to a report released Thursday.

"The government is losing too many new hires - the same talent it is working so hard to recruit and bring on board," says the report, "Beneath the Surface:Understanding Attrition at Your Agency and Why it Matters."

Overall, 24.2 percent of new hires left government from fiscal year 2006 to 2008, but at some agencies the situation was worse. More than a third of the new hires at the Departments of Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security weren't there two years later, according to the report prepared by the consulting firm of Booz, Allen, Hamilton and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.

Commerce attributed its attrition rate to the turnover of part-time temporary workers in its field offices.

Treasury said approximately 80 percent of employees who stay at the department for three years, stay at Treasury for their full career.

A disturbing 72 percent of Homeland Security career executives left that agency between 2003 and 2007, Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service's president and chief executive, told federal officials gathered for release of the report.

"No one was paying attention to it," Stier said.

It's scary to think that an agency so important to the security of the United States was being run by so many people with so little experience. Perhaps it's no coincidence that on the Partnership's 2010 list of Best Places to Work, Homeland Security ranks 28th out of 32 agencies in its category.

Fortunately, other critical agencies do better.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was the best agency at keeping new talent, with a recently hired attrition rate of 10.8 percent. NRC also ranks first in its category on the Best Places list. The State Department, the Office of Management and Budget, the Air Force and NASA also do relatively well, with rates ranging from 14.5 percent to 15.7 percent. The report did not have private sector newly-hired attrition rates for comparison.

Generally speaking, Sam does a good job of keeping his people on the job. Job security is a well-known attraction of government employment. The report says overall federal attrition rates were 7.6 in fiscal 2008 and 5.85 in 2009, compared with a private-sector rate of 9.2 in 2008.

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