Despite concerns that the ranks of the civil service could shrink during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government is hanging on to its workers — at least for now.

There was modest change in attrition across the federal government in fiscal 2021 despite turbulence caused by the nationwide health crisis and increased resignations in 2020. In fact, the civil service increased by more than 20,000 people last year and the total workforce is up more than 130,000 positions since 2014, according to a study from the Partnership for Public Service. Of those who did leave government posts in 2021, nearly half did so because they retired.

“While some attrition is natural and can help infuse the federal workforce with new talent and ideas, turnover can also cause a loss of institutional knowledge and cost hiring managers both time and resources,” the nonprofit said in issuing the report on Aug. 2. “Moreover, the federal government continued to grow in fiscal 2021, demonstrating the stability of the career workforce. That said, certain critical elements of the federal workforce are in a state of stress.”

By agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs had the highest attrition rate at 7.1% last year, a full percentage point greater than the government-wide average and an increase from the agency’s 6.4% attrition rate in 2020.

That’s as the department ranked among the top five best federal agencies to work by the the Partnership, which advocates for government service.

The departments of the Treasury, Army and Air Force also recorded high rates of attrition.

By contrast, the General Services Administration had the lowest attrition rate at 4.2%.

Attrition rates by occupation also shed light on recent efforts by the Biden administration and the Office of Personnel Management within the White House to retain and attract new talent, especially for cyber and IT jobs.

The attrition rate in fiscal 2021 was 5.0% for both the cyber and STEM workforce, which is lower than the government-wide average of 6.1%. The report shows that while government struggles to recruit talent for cyber and technology roles, agencies are successfully retaining this talent.

The government’s growing appetite for tech talent manifested in several adjustments to hiring practices, including two OPM initiatives in the last year that allow agencies to re-hire former federal employees at a possibly higher pay scale and graduates to apply for positions that offer up to $72,000.

The Biden administration also outlined a series of training and mentorship opportunities with various technology companies at the National Cyber Workforce and Education Summit in July.

Age may also factor into this lower attrition rate. While the cyber talent in the general workforce skews younger, most of the cyber talent in government is over 40 years old.

By contrast, health-related professions within the federal government saw waves of workers leaving at a rate of 7.1%, likely a reflection of frontline workers feeling burned out from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another key priority for the White House has been marketing federal jobs to younger workers as the rest of the civil service is expected to age out. Indeed, the attrition rate for employees under 30 was 8.5%, significantly higher than the government-wide average and notable for those keeping tabs on a workforce that can bridge institutional knowledge gaps and train newcomers.

That concern is reflected by data showing that entry-level government employees quit in relatively high numbers. The attrition rate was 14.5% for GS 1-4 employees. It was 8.7% for GS 5-7 employees, who are often early-career.

Almost one- third of the federal workforce will soon be eligible to retire, meaning a significant portion of the federal government’s 2.1 civilian workers could leave in the coming years. In addition, recent strong hiring in the private sector and the opportunity for remote work are drawing people away from federal employment.

“Workers are actually changing jobs for higher wages, better benefits, hybrid or working home environments and other factors,” said Soraya Correa, a former Department of Homeland Security executive, at the Professional Services Council Acquisition Conference in June. “This ‘great resignation’ or reshuffle is having an impact on all organizations, including the public sector.”

Molly Weisner is a reporter for Federal Times where she covers industry issues pertaining to the government workforce. She's made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a producer and worked on The New York Times's print desk as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism and French at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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