Hiring some retirees, in addition to recent grads


March 03, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer conducted a very simple but profound exercise with about 1,400 federal human resources experts in Baltimore this week.

Squinting through the stage lights at the Baltimore Convention Center, she asked audience members to raise their hands if they had more than 10 years of experience working for the federal government. Almost everyone did. Fifteen years? Twenty years? Thirty years? Finally, a large number of hands fell.

Springer then told the audience that its loyalty was a thing of the past.

Despite Uncle Sam's Cadillac retirement and health care benefits, younger workers don't plan to spend their entire careers in one job, in one agency or even in the public sector. One Labor Department survey found that, on average, they'll have nine jobs between the ages of 18 and 32.

Meanwhile, federal managers are facing a "retirement cliff." The hundreds of thousands of baby boomers hired to expand Social Security, spy on the Soviets, invent Medicare and Medicaid and stiffen regulations on everything from pollution to medicines are starting to age out of the work force.

"People behind us think differently than we do," Springer told the audience Monday morning. "That doesn't mean they're less committed."

The personnel office has warned agencies to expect higher turnover and more retirements in the near future, and it has forced them to beef up recruitment efforts, especially among recent college graduates.

But during her opening address to the convention, Springer posed a very different challenge: Find a way to keep these loyal - and graying - employees with the government past their retirement age. She called these workers "boomerangers," based on a term in a Feb. 18 article in the magazine The Economist.

The article defines "boomerangers" as people who return to work after an absence, but Springer also applied the term to hiring back retirees or letting aging workers reduce their hours. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, whose comments came after Springer's, said jokingly that boomerangers were people who retired and said, "Aw, hell. I have to stay at home all day with him. I love you, but I'm going to back to work."

Terry Stradtman, a regional director for the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration who supervises 450 workers in several states, said six boomerangers worked for him last summer. The match was perfect, he said, because he knew that he would have to lay off some of the retirees at the end of the budget year, and they liked the arrangement.

"They like coming back for shorter terms just to feel that they're contributing something," said Stradtman, whose father was an electrician and a boomeranger. "We also know what we're getting. They usually have a history of service of more than 30 years, and it removes some of the uncertainty about a new hire."

Stradtman said that the ability to rehire workers has been extremely valuable for "technical positions," in which it can take a year to get a new hire up to speed. The use of boomerangers at SSA is likely to grow - 40 percent of the agency's roughly 63,000 workers will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, said Fred Glueckstein, who directs recruitment planning for the agency.

Springer said that in light of the coming retirement waves, federal recruiters at every agency no longer have the "luxury" of turning away workers with decades of institutional knowledge just because they no longer want to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week.

But Springer and several senior human resources officials also acknowledged roadblocks, some of which only Congress can fix.

One major problem is a rule that penalizes workers' pensions under the old Civil Service Retirement System - generally, workers hired before 1984 - if they work part time at the end of their careers.

These pensions are calculated on a "high three-year average," meaning an average of a worker's three best annual salaries. Congress created the penalty to prevent part-timers from switching to full-time work for three years, bloating their pensions - and then quitting.

But the details of the rule have had the unintended consequence of hurting workers wanting to switch from full-time to part-time work later in life.

President Bush has proposed to fix this penalty in his 2007 budget request.

Although Stradtman said that such a change would help, he said finances do not drive the boomerangers that he knows. Instead, the budget dictates the number of boomerangers that he can hire. The greater the budget cut, the less flexibility he has.

"SSA hasn't been losing permanent positions in great numbers," Stradtman said. "Some other agencies have been forced to downsize more drastically, and cuts would certainly impact an agency's ability and willingness to bring in folks who might not be around for as long of a time."

The writer welcomes your comments and story ideas. She can be reached at 410-715-2885 or melissa.harris@baltsun.com. Recent back issues of the column can be read at baltimoresun. com/ federal.

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