Why feds retire

How many federal employees are planning to retire from their government jobs in the near future and why are they leaving?

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) posed those questions to feds in its recent "2000 Merit Principles Survey." They are of particular importance because agency managers anticipate the movement of large numbers of baby boomers into the "retirement-eligible" category. Nobody knows for sure how many of those eligible employees will actually retire, but serious consequences may result for agencies that don't plan for workforce shortages and skill imbalances.

Knowing how many eligible employees intend to retire and why they decide to do so could conceivably enable agencies to take steps to retain workers with vital skills. For that reason, the MSPB asked a representative sample of all feds to respond to questions about their retirement plans. Respondents were asked to identify what would be the most important factors in a decision to retire.

The results: Nonwork interests were cited by 73 percent (50 percent cited this as one of the three most important reasons for retiring). People want to pursue other interests besides work while they still can. This is not something a supervisor can do much about. Excessive job stress was cited by 45 percent (24 percent called it one of the three most important reasons). Whoever said being a fed was easy? Meanwhile, 40 percent of respondents cited an insufficient number of employees to do the work. Other factors cited were: Desire to work on their own—42 percent. Desire to make better use of skills and abilities—40 percent. This sounds like a veiled expression of dissatisfaction with the way that they're being utilized. Lack of recognition—37 percent. This also sounds like an expression of dissatisfaction. Desire for different work—36 percent. Family reasons — 45 percent (22 percent cited this as one of the three most important reasons). Problems with higher-level supervisors—35 percent. I would have expected this to be the first reason. Inadequate equipment, supplies, etc.—33 percent. What a dumb reason for retiring!

The percentage of workers who cited insufficient numbers of employees and excessive job stress clearly indicates the two are related. Among those who cited stress, 68 percent said their work unit lacked enough employees to do the work.

If the levels of job stress rise as employees begin to retire, a vicious cycle could result. The rate at which those eligible to retire actually do so will increase, further raising the stress levels of those who remain and driving still others to opt out.

There you have it: Feds are overworked and underpaid. And they're getting out as quickly as they can. Meanwhile, the Bush administration—like its predecessor—keeps pushing for staff reductions and more efficiency. Will they ever learn?

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at miltzall@starpower.net.


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