Denise Dickenson, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, gives her bosses high marks for trying to groom a new generation of leaders -- a challenge facing the EPA and other parts of the government as baby boomers retire.

Dickenson, 29, recently completed a nine-month mentoring program that helped her focus on her career goals. She liked the experience so much that she opted to continue with a second nine-month phase.

Her mentor addressed one of her key concerns -- that she was not getting enough time to interact with senior managers -- by arranging "informational interviews" with managers so that she could question them about their careers and get suggestions on how to pursue her own.

At the EPA regional office in Boston, Danielle Fuligni also said she has found the EPA willing to foster career development. Fuligni, 33, said that she has taken advantage of training opportunities and that the EPA encourages employees to "move around and work in different programs."

"Most things come down to support from your management, and I currently have great management," she said.

Like many federal agencies, the EPA faced grim predictions five years ago. Outside groups, such as the General Accounting Office, contended that the agency was unprepared for a wave of retirements that would deplete its senior ranks, did not know what kind of staff and skills were needed to achieve long-range goals and might not be competitive in recruiting young scientists and technicians.

Although most of the EPA's 18,000 employees are 40 or older and about a third are 50 or older, the projected rush to retirement by large numbers of employees has not happened, said Rafael DeLeon, director of the EPA's office of human resources and organizational services.

DeLeon thinks the agency is in good shape to address stepped-up retirements, if they occur, and the increasing pressure to recruit highly skilled employees, in part because his predecessors recognized in 1994 that the agency needed to tackle such issues.

"We were out ahead of other federal agencies when it came to workforce planning and looking at our workforce and the implications and the demographics," DeLeon said.

As part of the agency's succession planning and diversity effort, he said, the EPA has focused on improving its recruitment and training of employees.

This year, for example, about 2,300 people applied -- and 40 were accepted -- for the EPA Intern Program. The two-year internship rotates people through major programs and typically leads to a permanent position.

DeLeon oversees an initiative to develop future leaders at the EPA, called the Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. Fifty-one employees recently graduated from the program, which included rotating assignments. They were selected from among 100 finalists, who came from a pool of 800 applicants.

Many employees appear to think the EPA is on the right track. The agency ranked fifth in a "best places to work" index compiled by two groups outside the government. EPA employees gave high marks to the agency for its pay and benefits, work-life balance and diversity.

Dickenson, who described her job as "cutting-edge," and Fuligni, who said she works for the EPA's "neatest program," agreed that the high marks are deserved.

Dickenson started at the EPA in 1998 as an intern sponsored by the Environmental Careers Organization. She was in college and pursued the internship at the suggestion of the EPA's personnel office. In 1999, she landed a full-time job in the EPA's office of congressional and intergovernmental relations.

The internship, Dickenson said, "offered a lot of opportunity to really feel like you were part of the agency in terms of being able to go to conferences and participate as a real staff person."

Fuligni joined the EPA through the National Network of Environmental Management Studies Fellowship Program in 1992 and, two years later, successfully applied for a regular civil service position. Five years later, she left to attend graduate school, then applied and got a job in the EPA's Boston office working on urban environmental and health issues.

"Doing an internship or fellowship is the way to go," Fuligni said. "I don't know how I would have gotten into government work without having put myself in a fellowship program."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com