Data on the federal government’s top managerial class shows that separations are at a 20-year high while outside hires have stagnated over the last three years.

More than 900 employees in the Senior Executive Service took the off-ramp in 2022, up from 813 in 2021 and nearly matching the all-time of high of 906 set in 2018, before the start of the pandemic. Some 177 new hires were brought on from outside of government last year, little changed from 2021, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, good-government organization.

That figure doesn’t include employees who rose to the SES within their own agency, but the spike in separations does show where the workforce may need to focus manpower and hiring to replace potential losses of institutional knowledge and leadership.

“The noticeable dips in separations in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2020 are likely due to the uncertainties of the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic during those years,” according to the report.

Most of the separations are due to retirements — about 65% to 75% to be exact. The rest are quits and transfers to other agencies, and very few separations are caused by other factors, like poor performance.

This data offers a glimpse at what is driving attrition of this leadership cadre and where the Biden administration’s sweeping plans for workforce diversity and retention might focus efforts.

Understanding trends affecting this particular class of managerial employees is also key to planning for agencies’ continuity of operations, as nearly 80% of them are eligible to retire by fiscal 2030.

Overall, the SES has grown consistently over the past 25 years to a current strength of about 8,000. These employees serve right below presidential appointees in the federal workforce and are subject to different pay scales and rules for discipline.

“[The SES] serve as a critical bridge between the career workforce and the political appointees who change from administration to administration,” the Partnership’s research said.

The data also showed that this body is less diverse than the rest of the federal civilian workforce, and that hasn’t changed much over the years.

Most SES employees are white, male and middle-aged. People of color make up roughly a quarter of the SES, up from 16% in 2007.

Age may be less of a diversity factor for the SES considering these are not entry level jobs in government and require extensive experience by the merit system.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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