Employees aging, but most aren't leaving yet

Federal Workers

January 19, 2007|By Melissa Harris

The nation's work force is aging, and for several years now the federal government has recognized that its workers are aging more than most.

The good news released in a survey this week is that many experienced federal workers aren't going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.

The third in a series of surveys of government employees' attitudes toward their jobs, benefits and bosses found that only 4 percent of respondents plan to retire by this summer and 12 percent during the one to three years after that. More than half of the federal work force is eligible to retire now.

In addition, 69 percent of respondents said they were not considering leaving their agencies by this summer, while 16 percent said they were considering moving to another agency, but not leaving federal service all together.

"This is a good sign," said Max Steir, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a group that helps the government improve its hiring practices. "But we're talking about a problem deferred, rather than a problem solved. At some point, they will leave. The demographic bulge that we'll have to deal with is a reality."

If aging federal workers keep their word and remain on the job for a few additional years, it may slightly relieve some budgetary pressures, at least in the short term, at the Social Security Administration and the National Security Agency.

After Congress failed to act on almost all of its spending bills last year, the Baltimore County-based Social Security agency was placed on a hiring freeze until, at the earliest, Feb. 15. Previously, it had been hiring one person for every three that left.

The Sun's Siobhan Gorman reported this week that the National Security Agency in Anne Arundel County has been forced to scale back its hiring goals, adding only 150 to 275 more employees than it loses this year.

"These kind of budget situations will come to haunt us as the years go by," Steir said. "That kind of pressure will hurt agencies' capacity to hold on to the talent it currently has.

"What this survey shows is that if you reduce investment in the kinds of things that make people more productive, or if you don't get support because the talent isn't coming in, people are going to want to leave earlier. The government is so often penny wise and a pound foolish."

One reason employees seem willing to stay for now is satisfaction with their jobs, according to the survey. Of the more than 220,000 workers surveyed from more than 80 agencies, 83 percent said they liked the work they did; 90 percent said their work was important - the highest rated item in the survey; and 68 percent said that, considering everything, they were satisfied with their jobs.

In addition, about two-thirds of employees said they believed their supervisor was doing a good job, and that they had trust and confidence in that person.

But workers still expressed considerable dissatisfaction with senior leaders in their agencies, including appointees and members of the senior executive service.

Of gravest concern was the perceived lack of communication from top to bottom - 47 percent of government employees, compared with 60 percent in the private sector, said that they were satisfied with the information they received from management. Just under half of respondents said they had a "high level" of respect for senior leaders.

"This is still not a number we're satisfied with," said Nancy H. Kichak, an associate director at the Office of Personnel Management, who is in charge of the survey. "This is a question, dealing with the senior leaders in an agency, reflecting that there is not a connection there in the transfer of information up and down. ... That's jeopardizing the feeling of respect."

Kichak said that OPM would push to improve these results by reminding agencies that they need to develop internal communications plans and pass along information to employees.

Agency-by-agency survey results will not be available until Jan. 30, according to the Office of Personnel Management's Web site.

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

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