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At many agencies, fears of an exodus

Hundreds of thousands of feds can retire today

Dec. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Washington Landmarks Begin To Re-Open As Governmen
The sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol building. Some governement agencies are far more vulnerable to a retirement-driven exodus than others, statistics show. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

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Across the federal government, only one out of every seven full-time employees is currently eligible to retire.

But that overall 14 percent ratio masks gaping disparities across agency and organizational lines. At one NASA organization — the Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley — the proportion of retirement-eligible employees stands at almost 28 percent, according to Office of Personnel Management statistics released at Federal Times’ request.

The statistics show that some agencies are far more vulnerable to a retirement-driven exodus than others.

“Yes, it is a concern to us,” said Karen Newton Cole, deputy chief human capital officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department, where almost a quarter of the workforce can immediately retire — the highest percentage of any Cabinet-level department. “If everybody suddenly decided to take a walk, it would cripple the agency.”

Although unsure of the reason for the high ratio of retirement-eligibles, Newton Cole saw it as a positive reflection of employee commitment to the department’s mission. Whatever the cause, HUD is updating its departmentwide succession plan and taking measures — such as cross-training workers for more than one job — to prepare for a smaller workforce, she said.

At the Federal Aviation Administration, a much larger agency where 22 percent of employees are retirement eligible, the cause isn’t hard to find. A large chunk of FAA’s workforce is made up of air traffic controllers hired after 1981 when President Ronald Reagan fired their predecessors in response to a strike. Unlike most federal workers, those controllers face mandatory retirement at age 56. In the past five years, the FAA has made more than 6,660 new hires to help replace about 3,000 controllers who retired over the same time, spokesman Hank Price said in an email.

But sequester-related budget cuts that took effect in March largely shut down that pipeline. The FAA had planned to hire more than 1,200 controllers in fiscal 2013; because of a sequester-related hiring freeze, only about 550 were brought on board, said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Although hopeful that the funding outlook will improve this year, the broader demographic trend means the situation is “probably going to get worse before it gets better,” Church said.

For agencies with a large number of employees eligible to retire, a phased-retirement option is one tool “to mitigate that risk,” said Adam Cole, a senior director at CEB, a member-based advisory firm in northern Virginia. Congress approved that option last year; the Office of Personnel Management is drafting rules to implement it.

Some entities have the opposite problem. At the Patent and Trademark Office, a branch of the Commerce Department that has been rapidly hiring to reduce a backlog of patent applications, less than 7 percent of the workforce can retire. At the Defense Contract Audit Agency, the figure is 10 percent.

Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a DCAA spokesman, attributed the relatively low number to hiring that has boosted the size of the total workforce by more than 700 employees in the last four years.

Among federal organizations with more than 1,000 employees, NASA’s Ames Research Center had the highest proportion of retirement-eligibles: More than one out of four of its 1,200employees are able to retire immediately. That percentage is well above other NASA agencies. At Ames, the staff is “very energized” by its work on aeronautics and space applications, Associate Director Deborah Feng said in written answers. In addition, she said, employees often leave to take jobs at local companies, only to return later on to Ames’ benefit.

But, while the center has a succession plan, Feng said, “limited hiring flexibility” is hampering its ability to prepare for “the departure of a large share of our seasoned workforce.”

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