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Editorial: Plan for partial retirement promising, but vague

Feb. 19, 2012 - 01:13PM   |  
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Deep in President Obama's 2013 budget released last week was this intriguing nugget: a proposal to allow retirement-eligible federal employees to take a partial retirement.

If approved by Congress, feds could work part time at their federal job while collecting a partial pension and partial retirement benefits.

This would hand needed flexibility to agency managers who are now dealing with a very challenging retirement surge. Almost 105,000 federal employees put in their papers last year a 24 percent jump from the previous year. The Office of Personnel Management saw another spike in retirement applications filed in January, suggesting 2012 will see even more feds than last year racing for the exits. many federal managers face the prospect of a "brain drain" the loss of large numbers of senior staff who possess critical institutional knowledge and would jump at the chance to keep some of them on longer, even on a part-time basis.

Senior staff working part time could prove particularly valuable in providing guidance and expertise during turnover in the management ranks a larger percentage of managers are retirement-eligible than the overall workforce. Feds who "semi-retire" also could play an important role in mentoring other employees to help stem a brain drain.

The true potential of the proposal, however, is little more than notional at this point as there are few details provided beyond the concept. OPM estimates it would save $720 million over a decade by stretching out staff turnover and delaying the need for hiring and training. But, unfortunately, OPM floats that figure out there without any explanation of the numbers. That leaves plenty of room for skeptics to question the cost-savings claim, and others will focus on how effective turning an untold number of full-time federal positions into part-time positions will be in practice. To truly work, those part-time positions must be filled with highly motivated employees with clear-cut missions.

There could indeed be a payoff in terms of increased productivity that would come from keeping the best retirement-eligible talent in the ranks. And converting positions to part-time could preserve jobs as a cost-savings alternative to slashing the workforce, as some in Congress are pushing to do.

Should the plan come to pass, however, it could further hamper OPM's ongoing struggle to clear its backlog of pension claims, which would be further complicated by having to factor in part-time retirements. OPM leaders say it would not present a serious problem, but there's a history of downplaying the backlog even as it worsens.

The idea of a phased-in retirement for feds with critical experience and knowledge is promising but deserves careful scrutiny to ensure it can deliver on that promise.

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