Wave of federal workers to retire

Some agencies streamline hiring as longtime staff prepare to leave

March 19, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

The wave of federal workers originally hired to spy on the Soviet Union, launch the Great Society and regulate everyone from polluters to drugmakers in the 1960s and 1970s is beginning to age out of the work force, an exodus that some officials say could drain expertise and diminish the quality of service.

The numbers point to what some call a "retirement tsunami": 60 percent of federal workers are older than 45, and many could retire now if they wanted to, compared with 31 percent in the private sector, according to one think tank.

Experts say that the next five years could see a mass exit of experienced - and loyal - employees at a time when some younger workers see public service as a steppingstone to lucrative private-sector jobs.

"The loss of so many individuals with a deep, ingrained institutional knowledge of their agency has the potential to cause a lapse or pause of service delivery," Linda Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit human resources think tank, said he sees signs of that in such things as the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the lagging translation of foreign intelligence at the FBI.

"It's a problem of rust, rather than engine failure," said Stier, whose group, which helps the federal government improve its hiring practices, provided numbers on the coming federal retirement wave.

"It creeps up slowly but nonetheless can have devastating consequences. ... The work will not get done at the same level unless older workers stay longer or they are replaced with equal or superior folks."

Don Freeburn is one of those whose skills and experience hang in the balance. Hired by NASA in 1965, he worked on the Apollo program and is a general engineer with the Department of Energy.

He could have retired eight years ago, but college bills kept him in the work force.

"First of all, the job is great," said Freeburn, 63, of Clarksburg. "Second, this is a high cost-of-living area, and, basically, I had two kids in college, a wife who went back to college, and those debts over the last 10 years. Next year, I'll take another look at the finances."

His situation mirrors that of many older workers who rode into public service on the idealism of the 1960s.

Heeding the call

Early in that decade, people in their 20s heeded President John F. Kennedy's call to do something for their country, and the federal government hired them in record numbers.

Excluding the Postal Service, it added more than 428,000 employees during the 1960s, a growth of about 23 percent.

The Social Security Administration, with headquarters in Woodlawn, was a prime illustration. By the mid-1970s, young employees had swelled its work force to almost 82,500 workers nationally, nearly seven times its size in 1950. Many of them were hired en masse to handle an expansion of disability benefits.

The tide turned in the 1980s and 1990s. During the Reagan era, executive branch employment outside of the Defense Department and the Postal Service shrank 11 percent, to 1.16 million, according to Office of Personnel Management data, as employees rode out on anti-big-government rhetoric.

Budgets were stripped. Agencies laid off workers under official "reductions in force." Then President Bill Clinton shrank the military.

Privatization further scaled back the ranks, as did early-retirement packages aimed at meeting year-to-year cuts. Some recruiters no longer had a reason to give speeches at colleges or attend a large number of job fairs because they were hiring few people. Little attention was given to whether enough talent remained to replace retiring senior managers.

As a result, both of the Baltimore area's largest agencies - Social Security and the National Security Agency - have been playing catch-up.

"We hired no more than a handful of people, 200 to 250 per year, through the '90s," said John Taflan, director of human resources at the NSA, which eavesdrops on calls and e-mail globally. "We had to ramp up to rebuild a recruiting network. ... It took us about three years to get it going again."

Given the new demands after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency plans to hire 1,500 people worldwide yearly from 2003 to 2011, and Taflan said the nature of that work dictates that about 60 percent of those hired are recent college graduates.

But training those workers - 97 percent of whom stay until retirement - is slow.

"It takes three to five years and, for more difficult languages, seven years, to train someone to see behind the actual spoken word and draw conclusions from it," Taflan said. "It's hard to hire someone midway through their career because of the long training time. They're over halfway through their career and just learning how to do the work."

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