If, on this Labor Day weekend, you are thinking of a career change, then take a long, hard look at the federal government.

Federal pay isn't bad -- averaging about $58,000 worldwide and about $75,000 in the Washington area, where most agencies have their headquarters. Federal jobs come with a full range of benefits, including easy access to health insurance. When you retire, you can keep your health insurance, which includes a prescription drug benefit, and you get a pension.

It's also a good time to be job hunting in the government. A report from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service shows that 31.7 percent of full-time federal employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

Even higher percentages will qualify for retirement at the government's top white-collar pay grades, General Schedule 12 through 15, where salaries range from about $53,000 to about $114,000, not counting location-based supplements.

"Retirements at mid-career and senior levels will create thousands of job openings and a corresponding need for talented individuals to fill these positions," the partnership said in a report, "Mid-Career Hiring," released Sept. 2.

By the partnership's calculations, nearly 40 percent of GS-12 and GS-13 employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. About 45 percent of GS-14s and about 54 percent of GS-15s will have put in enough years to retire.

Not all of these employees are going to retire, of course. But many, many, many will leave.

Last year, in a break with historical trends, government employees retired at rates higher than forecast, the partnership found. In fiscal 2003, 50,032 employees retired, more than the 44,305 that had been projected. Of the retirees, 8,836 were supervisors.

In addition, substantial numbers of federal employees leave the payroll every year for reasons other than retirement. In fiscal 2003, more than 47,000 resigned, died or were terminated, according to the report.

The partnership has been doing the math on federal employment because it sees the government at a turning point. The number of professional and senior-level employees who will be retiring will probably exceed the number of employees who can be promoted, and "the federal government almost certainly won't have the 'bench strength' to adequately fill these jobs internally," the report said.

As Max Stier, the partnership president, put it, "At the mid-career levels, the government has more work to do and the greater need."

In its research, the partnership found some encouraging data showing that federal agencies appear to be stepping up their hiring from outside government.

The number of job applicants from outside the government hired at the GS-12 through GS-15 levels increased from 8,009 in 2000 to 10,485 in 2003, according to the report. Looking back over four years, the percentage of mid-career hires from outside government increased from about 10 percent to about 15 percent, the report said.

As those percentages suggest, the overwhelming majority of mid-career federal jobs are filled with in-house applicants. Most agencies have been granted control over hiring and tend to fill mid-career and professional jobs by promoting employees from within.

When an agency decides to open a job to outside applicants, it's not unusual for job seekers to complain that the postings are difficult to understand. Agencies often require specific qualifications and experience that can be gained only through work in the government. Mid-career professionals, because of job or family obligations, sometimes give up on federal job hunts when they learn that the hiring process can take months, or even years.

This cohort also is the most skeptical about federal employment and whether its jobs provide an opportunity to make a difference in other people's lives, a recent survey by the partnership found.

To avoid being swamped by the coming retirement wave, Stier says agencies need to rethink their hiring procedures, open up to people who are looking for shorter stints in federal service than has been the norm, and step up their networking with alumni associations and trade organizations.

"Simply advertising a job isn't going to do the trick," he said.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com