How real is the threat of disgruntled feds jumping to industry?

2012 is expected to be a continuation of 2011, with more federal budget pressure and cuts to pay and benefits and possibly even an extension of the pay freeze. Not surprisingly, some feds are saying they’ve had enough and are threatening to trade their government service for a career in the private sector.

But will the government really experience a mass exodus of disgruntled employees? And are feds frustrated enough that they are willing to leave in a time of soaring unemployment and continued financial uncertainty?

In July 2011, an analysis by USA Today showed that federal employees' job security was so strong that workers at many agencies were more likely to die of natural causes than get laid off or fired. The analysis showed that death was a greater threat than layoffs at agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Small Business Administration. The research also revealed that the federal government fired far fewer employees last year compared to the private sector.

But in 2012, the picture is looking much different. More than 100,000 federal employees are expected to leave government this year, according to projections by the Partnership for Public Service. Along with the usual retirees lurk a significant number who are looking for better opportunities in the private sector. Although feds have patiently shouldered the burden of the downsizing of government, a growing number are expressing frustration with what they say are persistent, unfair attacks on the federal workforce.

Federal hiring managers also recognize the challenges that lie ahead. According to a Federal News Radio survey in December 2011, public-sector human resources professionals said their biggest hurdle this year will be retaining employees in a sluggish economy.

Sinking morale rarely comes as a surprise to agencies. Various surveys, including the Office of Personnel Management's Annual Employee Survey, highlight the issues surrounding morale and job satisfaction among federal employees. In addition, exit interviews bring some insight into the attitudes and behaviors of departing employees. But agencies also need to be proactive about identifying problems before employees walk out the door.

The lure of greener pastures

Although it is difficult to quantify how many feds are leaving because they have had enough, tens of thousands will go despite general financial uncertainty and high unemployment, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. That could mean that some feds are willing to risk being without a job rather than stay at a government agency that has the potential for more cutbacks or layoffs.

"It's hard to refute the notion that some of the increase that we're seeing in retirements and quits...is due to the attacks on federal pay and benefits," Palguta said. Some of the greatest motivations to leave the government are rooted in the idea that there is always something better on the other side of the fence, whether it is better pay, benefits, work environment or job satisfaction, he added.

The younger generation, in particular, tends to seek opportunities that encourage growth and development. But in a stagnant economy, those opportunities are likely to disappear, leaving frustrated feds to ponder other career options. A report last year from the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton found that nearly one-fifth of newly hired employees leave within two years. The number of fast-exiting young feds could easily grow as the government faces ever-shrinking budgets.

But federal employees itching to leave government might be better off staying put. Although 2012 promises more belt-tightening and growing anti-government sentiments that epitomize presidential election years, better times could be right around the corner.

"My prediction is that 2013 will be a better year," Palguta said. "We're seeing some preliminary signs that we might have bottomed out from the bad economy and things are improving. If you can make it through 2012, you might start seeing some improvement in what people think about the government and clarity in regard to the budget."

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Reader comments

Fri, Jan 20, 2012 ml

To Slade and others on the comments.. you chose your job and Feds chose theirs so if you're jealous over the pay/benefits or job security you think Feds have, get a Federal job, but stop kicking them around and knocking them for having a job that just "SEEMS" more secure than Private Industry because it's not greener on the Fed side and I'm not complaining either. AND Unelect the Elected - Both parties need to go.

Fri, Jan 20, 2012 Abort Retry Reboot

I believe that large numbers of Federal Employees jumping to the Private Sector is unlikely to happen. What I worry about is the quality of those that do. Like any large employer the Federal Government has people who are high caliber, highly motivated, exceptionally skilled professionals. Also like any other large employer, the Federal Government has a contingent of employees who are just taking up space. The problem is that a move to the private sector is a real option for the high caliber employees, and not an option at all for the useless. What migration we will see will be the best and brightest walking out the door.

Fri, Jan 20, 2012

Come on James.......get real. I work in the IT industry for the largest provider of IT hardware and the second largest provider of IT services in the world. Thanks to "Best Shore" concepts the IT jobs are moving overseas. Unless you have management skills and want to manage programmers in India, good luck. And "high-skill professionals"? Come on...the government is paying a high tech job code for COBOL programmers. One of them once told me when I asked why they did not put forth effort to upgrade their skill sets to stay current in the market......"I work for the government, if they want me to know it, they will have to teach it to me". These people will walk to find public sector jobs? How will we support all the new unemployed?

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 frustrated fed DC

One of the parties will not be satisfied until there is no middle class. First the private sector, now the public sector. I think it's time for both private and public sector middle class employees to fight back and take our country back.

Thu, Jan 19, 2012 James Ball Lakewood, CO

Something to remember is that many federal employees these days are high-skill professionals. It is NOT difficult to find secure positions in engineering or IT. Those people will walk first- they have many options.

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