The real reason behind the government brain drain

Federal agencies are so sensitive to the loss of institutional knowledge because their employees tend to stick around so long

The federal “brain drain” legend—the notion that the federal government will experience a huge loss of institutional knowledge as a tide of retirees exits the doors—has been making the rounds for years. And one of these years—in spite of the fact that people are working longer—it will start to happen.

But don’t blame it all on retiring baby boomers—that generation that filled jobs in government’s swelling ranks during the last 30 or 40 years. Because the private sector, where boomers also work, doesn’t anticipate the same loss of experience in the workplace.

The reason: a typical private-sector worker just doesn’t stick around in a job long enough to gain the same depth of experience as an average public-sector worker.

According to a new report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, over the last 25 years, “career jobs” have not really existed for American workers as a whole. EBRI says that the “median tenure”—defined as the midpoint of wage and salary workers’ length of employment in a current job—of private and public workers combined has really not changed during the last 25 years: 5.1 years at the same job in 2008, compared with 5.0 years in 1983.

But break those statistics into private and public, and the story changes.

While private-sector workers’ median tenure has been steady, at about 3.9 years over the period, the median tenure for public-sector workers increased from 6.0 years in 1983 to 7.0 years in 2008—an average about 80 percent higher than that of the private sector. What’s more, almost 10 percent of public-sector workers have 25 or more years of tenure—read “experience”—a proportion much higher than that in the private sector.

EBRI’s numbers include all public workers, not just feds, whose numbers are much higher. According to a 2008 report from the Congressional Research Service, the average length of service in the federal workforce was 14.7 years in 2008. And approximately 20 percent of feds in 2008 had more than 25 years of service.

So after the federal brain is drained, will federal service continue to attract new talent? Judge for yourself—according to trends examined by EBRI, “most U.S. private-sector workers will never become eligible for health insurance in retirement through a former employer.”

These days, that fact alone may be enough to boost competition for federal jobs.

About the Author

Federal Daily, an 1105 Government Information Group site, features news and resources for federal and postal employees.


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