The federal workforce is building toward a potential retirement wave in coming years, with more than a third of career federal employees projected to be eligible for collecting their end-of-career benefits by September 2017, compared to just 14 percent at the same time in 2012.

That’s according to a new report on trends in federal civilian employment and compensation from Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office. The analysis also found that federal employment, not including the military, grew by 14 percent between 2004 and 2012, with most of the increase coming in the form of jobs that require higher skill and education.

Retirement issues

The GAO concluded that the large numbers of retirement-eligible employees in coming years may be a cause for concern because “their retirement could produce mission-critical skills gaps if left unaddressed.”

In 2012, Congress and President Obama took action to address that situation, approving a “phased-retirement” program that allows federal employees to work part-time after the age of retirement while receiving partial annuities and continuing to pay toward their benefits. Those workers would be required to to spend at least 20 percent of their part-time employment on mentoring their replacements.

Federal-worker groups have called for an expansion of the phased-retirement program, saying it should apply to older employees who have worked for the government fewer than 20 years.

The federal workforce is growing?

The latest data and projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the federal workforce is actually shrinking. By December 2013, the government had lost more than 80,000 employees compared to the same time the previous year.

The GAO report showed growth because it covered only 2004 through 2012, during which time the workforce grew from 1.88 million to 2.13 million. BLS projections show that federal employment is now moving in the opposite direction, with a decline of 13 percent likely to occur over the next nine years.

For what it’s worth, the GAO found that the government’s three largest agencies — the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security — accounted for 94 percent of the increase in federal employment between 2004 and 2012.

The Pentagon said much of its growth resulted from converting certain positions from military to civilian, in addition to an expansion of its acquisition and cybersecurity workforces, according to the report. The Department of Veterans Affairs said increased demand for medical and health-related services drove its growth, while the Department of Homeland Security attributed its proliferation to the nation’s border-security requirements, the analysis said.

Other findings

The GAO also determined that spending on total compensation for all full-time positions across the government grew by an average of 1.2 percent per year between 2004 and 2012, jumping from $106,097 to $116,828 during that time.

In terms of pay alone, spending for each full-time employee increased at an average rate of about 1 percent per year.

Both of those rates would have been higher if President Obama had not implemented a pay freeze for federal workers lasting two years starting in 2010. Congress voted to continue the hold through 2013, but that wouldn’t have affected the GAO findings, since it occurred too late.

Federal employees are set  to receive their first automatic pay raise in more than three years in 2014, with their rates increasing by 1 percent due to an executive order that Obama issued two days before Christmas.

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