Workforce Management

Will returning feds head for the exits?

man walking away

Now that the government shutdown is over and the risk of default averted, furloughed federal workers will return to their jobs to dig out from a backlog of work. They might be facing more than overflowing email boxes and past-due deadlines. Many will be looking to the exits.

One group to watch is retirement eligible federal workers who could use their annuity payments to fund the launch of a second career.

Currently there are about 650,000 federal workers in their 50s, and this group holds a lot of the government's institutional knowledge, noted Kris Van Riper, head of the government practice at CEB, a consulting firm. While many retirement eligible feds have been delaying retirement because of an unfavorable job market, modest gains in the economy and the continuing uncertainty over the federal budget could drive some of this group to head for the private sector.

"Our own research on employee retention shows that when people have a disruptive past experience, it impacts their willingness to stay in their current job," Van Riper said.

Feds with marketable skills, especially IT workers, are going to be at risk of leaving because of morale issues and private-sector opportunities, said John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service. "Many folks who have the option to leave will exercise that option," Palguta said. "We have a very thin bench in many places in government."

Millennials are under-represented in government compared with the private sector workforce, despite increasing churn in the federal employment. According to Van Riper, some of these young managers are likely to reconsider a government career.

"Because the demographics of the federal workforce are skewed toward older workers, it's more important to retain those high performers today. We're concerned about [millennials] because the value proposition they thought they were going to get when they joined the federal workforce may not be what they've experienced, particularly in the last couple of months," she said.

Employee morale is going to vary by agency, notes Palguta. Some civilian agencies, including the departments of Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development were in large part shuttered during the budget standoff. By contrast, the departments of Veterans Affairs and Justice were operating at closer to full strength. Civilians in the Defense Department and throughout the intelligence community were initially furloughed, but were brought back to work through legislative action or administrative decisions.

But Palguta thinks the episode will have a deteriorating effect on morale, even in agencies where furloughs were the exception rather than the rule, because of "all of this negative dialogue."

According to Van Riper, federal managers looking to motivate and retain their most valuable workers should be sure to let returning employees know how their work is important to the agency's overall mission, while setting clear priorities on how  best to spin up agency work following the shutdown to avoid employees being overextended. At the same time, managers should ask workers for guidance on what institutional roadblocks are impeding their work, while resetting future expectations in the context of budgetary uncertainty.

Palguta sounded many of the same notes, and also suggested that managers conduct "stay interviews" with their most valued employees. Instead of waiting until a worker leaves to do an exit interview, managers should preemptively discover what it's going to take to get them to stay.

There's news on worker morale due out even before the Office of Personnel Management reboots its retirement application processing operations. The 2013 results of the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey should be released soon after the government returns to full strength. The 2013 survey was conducted before the government shutdown, but during ongoing sequestration furloughs. Palguta expects to see some of the lowest numbers for workplace satisfaction since the survey launched in 2002. The survey was due to be published Oct. 1, but the OPM staffers responsible for its release were furloughed during the shutdown.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Reader comments

Sat, Nov 16, 2013 victor

For young people coming out of college becoming a federal employee is a horriable career decision. No pay raises, constant attacks by congress, unappreciated, no bonus for a job well done unless you are at the top levels of the organization. Trust me when I say would much better being part of private industry or maybe working for the city and retiring after 20 years with a nice pension. Federal employment is a terrible way to go.

Sun, Oct 20, 2013 Ron

Interesting the point of views posted. Some think that people are going to quit because of the furlough, but most of the people who are giving up that I know are tired of a CEO (Obama) and a board of directors (Senate and House) who say one thing and then treat the workers as one person said, whipping boys. I am not one of the furlough folks since we are funded out 18 weeks on a rotating fund, and we just got our next 18 weeks in too but given the current policies and due to the politicians we have, I wish I had another three years in and I would VERY seriously consider retiring. Obama took away our pay for performance, the Senate and House do not appear to respect the federal worker and often "dis" us and use us as a scapegoat, so why stay and just go downhill on pay when I could have retired pay and a part time job?

As far as contractors, on our base no contractors (except for the janitors) were canned and the group next to us has one Government worker working without pay (to be paid after a budget is passed) to allow them to be working in the building.

Just an engineer's point of view who worked in industry before coming to the Fed 13 years ago.

Fri, Oct 18, 2013

@ OccupyIT. Your comments are exactly why many fed employees are deciding to hang it up and retire. Of course I'm sure you'll say, "good let the deadwood leave and bring in new young folks to do it better" or something like that. But, this is the govt; when one leaves we can't replace. For every three feds that leave, one can be hired. This of course means the govt will do less over time. Of course, then you'll probably say, "good let the govt do less; they are the one's messing things up as it is" or something like that. Be careful what you ask for. Intelligent and educated people tend to go where they're treated well, leaving the less educated/motivated behind. If you can't see where that leads, you're not paying attention. BTW, all the contractors where I work, were funded and continued to work through the furlough and got paid. I on the other hand was not allowed to and still have no proof I will get paid for the furlough time. So, please don't generalize too much in your endeavor to make your point.

Fri, Oct 18, 2013

All of you "hitting the door or leaving". Why? You got a free paid vacation at tax payers expense. Who are you kidding? If you get laidoff in the private sector, you will never ever get paid for the days you didn't work.

Fri, Oct 18, 2013

Where is the moral builder when they have already voted to not give raises any more. We have to take training hours so that we can meet all those cristeria to get our raises, but what raises. OPM really needs to look at all this criterias that they are putting on us, we have a time clock for salary employees, that usually work longer then 40 hours a week, which they tell us can not be put in for Comp time, your supervisor has to approve it or HR. When did it become that there was an understanding that we work extra hours for no compensation, never saw that on my contract. There is no general understanding it is just what managers want to tell you and if you call them to the carpet then you have a bad atitude and not a team player.

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