DOD faces aging workforce

Department of Defense Civilian Human Resources Strategic Plan

Like their colleagues in the rest of the government, civilian employees in the Pentagon are getting grayer.

According to estimates, between 40 percent and 60 percent of the Defense Department's total civilian workforce — many of them technologists — will be eligible to retire in the next three to five years, and that could create a workforce shortage that has not been seen before, according to some experts.

Downsizing and layoffs at DOD over the past decade, performed without a well- designed workforce plan, contributed to the problem, according to a General Accounting Office report released last month.

DOD now must focus on training middle managers to take over for those approaching retirement age and accelerate the training of some of the more junior workers to fill the empty middle management roles, according to GAO.

Mark Roddy, a retired Air Force officer and vice president of defense business development at Teradata, a division of NCR Corp., said the Annual Defense Review predicted that by 2006, 66 percent of all civilian employees would be eligible for retirement. Of that 66 percent, as many as two-thirds represent skilled, educated and experienced workers in information technology, science and technology, and engineering.

"There are certainly certain categories where it would be harder to replace civilian employees," Roddy said. "Science and engineering careers — those that require a long period of education in a specialized field — will be particularly hard to fill. There are people within DOD who have the training but not the experience the department will be losing."

According to DOD's Civilian Human Resources Strategic Plan, updated in April, the department's policies for hiring and retaining skilled civilian workers have not significantly changed in decades.

That status quo may soon end. Legislation to create a new personnel system for nearly 750,000 civilian defense employees is making its way through Congress. Among other things, the legislation establishes a pay-for-performance system in DOD that rewards good employees for their work, allows DOD to offer early retirement and separation pay, and makes it easier to hire experts from outside DOD.

Ginger Groeber, deputy undersecretary for civilian personnel policy at DOD, said the Defense Department already takes advantage of recruitment, retention and relocation bonuses to attract and keep people in DOD, as well as using other incentives such as teleworking and part-time work.

DOD also has the authority in its demonstration projects to use term appointments that may last up to six years.

In the proposed legislation, DOD would be allowed to extend this authority departmentwide, something that may prove useful for IT positions, Groeber said. Many workers today are not looking for a 30-year career, she said.


  • Defense
    Essye Miller, Director at Defense Information Management, speaks during the Breaking the Gender Barrier panel at the Air Space, Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 19, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Chad Trujillo)

    Essye Miller: The exit interview

    Essye Miller, DOD's outgoing principal deputy CIO, talks about COVID, the state of the tech workforce and the hard conversations DOD has to have to prepare personnel for the future.

  • innovation (Sergey Nivens/

    VA embraces procurement challenges at scale

    Steve Kelman applauds the Department of Veterans Affairs' ambitious attempt to move beyond one-off prize-based contests to combat veteran suicides more effectively.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.