The long-awaited 'retirement tsunami' has begun

Remember the expected mass exodus of retiring government employees that was going to leave the government without its most knowledgeable, experienced hands? It’s here.

Recent data from FedScope shows that retirements have spiked recently, with a 45 percent increase governmentwide in the last quarter of 2011 compared to the same quarter of 2010. For the entire calendar year, retirements were up 19 percent year over year, with retirements accelerating with each quarter, said Adam Cole, senior director at CEB, a member-based firm that provides advisory services for senior executives.

“The retirement [wave] that everyone’s been talking about that never came into fruition? It’s happening,” he said. “The analogy I’d make is: It’s been a wave in the middle of the ocean for a long time, and it’s finally starting to come to shore and while it hasn’t crested, the wave is starting to form.”

The number of new hires has also decreased. In 2008, agencies hired 26 percent more newcomers than in 2007, while in 2010 the year-over-year change was a drop of 18 percent. Equally glum data can be found in research that federal hires with two years or less of tenure are six times more likely to quit than employees who have been with the government three years or longer, Cole said, citing research from CEB.

The overall retirement data “isn’t a soft description of what’s happening; it’s reporting the current state,” he added.

The first half of 2012 alone saw 60,000 retirements, and for the first time in a decade, more federal civil servants retired than in each of the previous 10 years, said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service.

The retirement issue becomes critical when agencies no longer can backfill the vacant positions, he said, and simply bringing on new people won’t help agencies fully cope with the situation.
“I don’t think that the government necessarily has done a good job in fully preparing its bench strike to take over the starters,” McManus said.  The government "has some really good bench players who’ve been in positions for a while, but they haven’t fully developed to take over because the retirement wave simply hadn’t happened yet.”

At AMA Enterprise Government Solutions, preparation comes in the form of professional development and leadership training. Vice President Sam Davis said federal customers have indicated retirements are rising, and many of the seasoned employees leave with a lot of talent and institutional knowledge.

To help solve that brain drain, Davis said his division has worked with some government organizations to implement succession plans to ensure new leaders are being cultivated through leadership development training. Areas to focus on particularly are called the “4 Cs”: critical thinking and problem solving; effective communication; collaboration and team building; and creativity and innovation, he said.

“It’s certainly a wake-up call that government organizations need to pay attention to capturing the wealth of knowledge from their more seasoned employees before these employees leave, and ensure that training and development is in place to increase motivation for employees to stay longer, and to train the next generation of government leaders,” Davis said.

The ongoing brain drain is further exacerbated by talent shortage coalesced into a perfect storm of a sluggish economy, pay freezes and misconceptions of what it’s like to be a fed, Cole said. Most of the current focus in discussions about the government’s talent shortage has been on the dearth of mission-critical occupations, "but you need top performers in all occupations, and they’re less likely to join the government or even stay,” Cole said.  

Amid the mass exodus and the government's lack of planning to backfill, are agencies doomed? Not necessarily. With a new generation of feds sweeping in come new ideas and approaches, and reforms speeding up the hiring process help usher in high-quality talent, McManus said.

“While some factors indicate agencies are heading for a potential collision course because of the increased departments from government, there are a few silver linings that at least give a glimmer of hope that agencies have a fighting chance,” he said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Tue, Oct 9, 2012

Have to laugh at some of the posts.

Contractor Federal Agency : Define contractor – I worked for LockMart (a contractor) as a direct employee and had good pay, good vacation, good sick leave, retirement, and good medical. After a layoff I worked directly for the Gov as a SAIC contractor for three months and my CONTRACT did not have vacation, sick, medical, retirement, or any of the other items that most people expect, but I got paid a lot more in dollars.

Going Nowhere Fast Fed : A lot of folks had good pay increases during Bush's term, although I know some did not under NSPS but then they were the ones you could never find to assign work to.

Steve (although I disagree on the FERS/CSRS) and RonW have some good points. I agree, I tell our new hires to go look for a real job, then consider coming back after about five or ten years when you have built your pay up and get some broader experience. But then again, who wants to come back to a job where you now do not know where you will stand in the next political cycle?

And as far as the civilian retiree side getting screwed by the current president and congress, the military retirees have already been for many years. One example is medical, a recruiting mantra in the 60's and 70's was free medical care upon retirement. Well, you pay for it now unless you work for a company that has medical and then you can stay with the free stuff as a secondary. Still a better deal than most (except for the politician's package and some others), but not what was promised for putting your life and health on the line for 20 years.

Thu, Oct 4, 2012 Joey

@Steve. Bull on your comment, "...the CSRS pension plan. The perceived value of the pension is what kept me from jumping ship." Perceived value??!1 Excuse me?? You get a CPI COLA when FERS gets a CPI - 1% COLA while active employees get zero!! How dare you whine about your GOLDEN CSRS lure. What promises have been broken to you? You can step out anytime and live almost the same as when you worked and never have to worry about inflation eating away at your annuity. I hope they gut CSRS and knock it down to what FERS gets, after you retire. Both CSRS and FERS contribute roughly the same to their retirement (CSRS 7% but no social sceurity contribution; FERS 6.2% social security and 0.8% to their annuity for a total of 7%). BUT, CSRS can come away with up to 70% of his/her high three!! For FERS, add SS AND annuity and one can come away with as much as 40%. PLUS the employer of the FERS employee pays another 6.2% into SS and STILL the FERS employee only gets roughhly half of what the CSRS person gets. You CSRS guys laugh all the way to the bank and never have to worry about inflation while we the FERS folks are expected to pay even more than the effective 14% we (and our employer) already contribute, You on the other hand always have and always will pay your measley 7% and you have the gall to complain. I am disgusted. Quit rubbung it in FERS employees faces and just retire. Please. Get out.

Wed, Oct 3, 2012 CSRS Fed Employee

They lied about the Long Term Care policy never increasing and got away with raising it. So there's nothing to keep them from cutting Federal benefits. I pray that I'm not in the mix that gets it. I'm retiring at 55 next year,CSRS. More and more rules and regulations; more work; less staff; and I'm told Govt. employees are paid more than private? That's a political untruth. Most govt. employees do more than one job any more and with more and more retape it's not getting any easier. It would be nice if they offered another early buy out in time for my retirement in the spring.

Tue, Oct 2, 2012 John Tucson

I think congress is missing the message they give when they don't give raises. I can retire and have somewhat of a guaranteed COLA that isn't at the whimsy of our current politicians. I also don't have to deal with the double standard of giving the military raises but not the civil servants.

Tue, Oct 2, 2012 DOI scientist

The brain drain is occurring in science agencies who have been downsizing for the last 17 years while not being allowed to hire new young folks to train. We've had to lose 5 people to hire 1. When we have managed to hire a student and train them, they have to leave as soon as they graduate because we don't have the OE to keep them permanently. It's only been in the very recent past that we've finally been allowed to hire new young folks and it's too late, the scientist are escaping in droves (or dying) and with them go their 30 to 50 years of science knowledge.

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