How real is the threat of disgruntled feds jumping to industry?

If federal employees can survive the coming tough year, chances are 2013 could bring some relief, one expert says.

2012 is expected to be a continuation of 2011, with more federal budget pressure and cuts to pay and benefits and possibly even an extension of the pay freeze. Not surprisingly, some feds are saying they’ve had enough and are threatening to trade their government service for a career in the private sector.

But will the government really experience a mass exodus of disgruntled employees? And are feds frustrated enough that they are willing to leave in a time of soaring unemployment and continued financial uncertainty?

In July 2011, an analysis by USA Today showed that federal employees' job security was so strong that workers at many agencies were more likely to die of natural causes than get laid off or fired. The analysis showed that death was a greater threat than layoffs at agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Small Business Administration. The research also revealed that the federal government fired far fewer employees last year compared to the private sector.

But in 2012, the picture is looking much different. More than 100,000 federal employees are expected to leave government this year, according to projections by the Partnership for Public Service. Along with the usual retirees lurk a significant number who are looking for better opportunities in the private sector. Although feds have patiently shouldered the burden of the downsizing of government, a growing number are expressing frustration with what they say are persistent, unfair attacks on the federal workforce.

Federal hiring managers also recognize the challenges that lie ahead. According to a Federal News Radio survey in December 2011, public-sector human resources professionals said their biggest hurdle this year will be retaining employees in a sluggish economy.

Sinking morale rarely comes as a surprise to agencies. Various surveys, including the Office of Personnel Management's Annual Employee Survey, highlight the issues surrounding morale and job satisfaction among federal employees. In addition, exit interviews bring some insight into the attitudes and behaviors of departing employees. But agencies also need to be proactive about identifying problems before employees walk out the door.

The lure of greener pastures

Although it is difficult to quantify how many feds are leaving because they have had enough, tens of thousands will go despite general financial uncertainty and high unemployment, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. That could mean that some feds are willing to risk being without a job rather than stay at a government agency that has the potential for more cutbacks or layoffs.

"It's hard to refute the notion that some of the increase that we're seeing in retirements and quits...is due to the attacks on federal pay and benefits," Palguta said. Some of the greatest motivations to leave the government are rooted in the idea that there is always something better on the other side of the fence, whether it is better pay, benefits, work environment or job satisfaction, he added.

The younger generation, in particular, tends to seek opportunities that encourage growth and development. But in a stagnant economy, those opportunities are likely to disappear, leaving frustrated feds to ponder other career options. A report last year from the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton found that nearly one-fifth of newly hired employees leave within two years. The number of fast-exiting young feds could easily grow as the government faces ever-shrinking budgets.

But federal employees itching to leave government might be better off staying put. Although 2012 promises more belt-tightening and growing anti-government sentiments that epitomize presidential election years, better times could be right around the corner.

"My prediction is that 2013 will be a better year," Palguta said. "We're seeing some preliminary signs that we might have bottomed out from the bad economy and things are improving. If you can make it through 2012, you might start seeing some improvement in what people think about the government and clarity in regard to the budget."

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