The long-awaited 'retirement tsunami' has begun

A growing wave of retiring feds is leaving a knowledge gap, and experts fear the next tier of employees may not be ready to step up.

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.

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