The federal government is by far the largest employer of military veterans in the United States, with approximately 32 percent of the 2.1 million-person federal workforce having some form of prior military experience.

Since 2009, the executive branch has made a concerted effort to increase veterans hiring initiatives, but according to a Government Accountability Office report released Aug. 21, all federal agencies struggle to retain those hires.

“Between fiscal years 2014 and 2018 we estimated that, after controlling for key demographic factors, an average of 6.7 percent of veterans left the government compared to 5 percent of similar non-veterans,” the report said.

“We estimated that across all types of attrition, on average, veterans left federal service at 1.2 to 1.6 times the rate of similar non-veterans from fiscal years 2014 through 2018.”

That gap widens significantly when looking at feds that leave early in their careers, either due to resignation or firing.

“On average, we estimated that 18.7 percent of veterans resigned within their first 5 years of federal service, compared to 11.1 percent of similar newly hired non-veterans — a 7.6 percentage point difference,” the report said.

“On average, we estimated that 4.3 percent of veterans were separated or terminated within their first 5 years of federal service, compared to 3 percent of similar newly hired non-veterans.”

According to the report, the Small Business Administration had the widest variance in veteran attrition between 2014 and 2018, with over 5 percent more veteran employees leaving the agency than non veterans. The National Science Foundation and Department of Interior also struggled.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Department of Transportation had a more equal attrition rate, with only 0.5 percent more veterans leaving the agency than non-veterans.

GAO notes that a veteran leaving their job at an agency does not mean that they have necessarily left government service altogether, as “preferences for veterans in federal hiring may make transferring between agencies easier for an eligible veteran than for a non-veteran. It may also make it easier for a veteran to resign from one agency and be hired at another.”

The report found that of the six drivers for employee retention — pay, meaningfulness of work, confidence in leaders, training and skills development, relationships with supervisors and opportunities for advancement — both veteran and non-veteran feds were generally satisfied with the first five.

But opportunities for advancement received only 38.5 percent satisfaction among non-veterans and 36.8 percent satisfaction among veterans, according to data collected from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Ultimately, using FEVS data to understand why veterans leave federal service is in itself flawed, because the Office of Personnel Management does not conduct retention analyses on the survey results and does not provide specific responses to agencies.

“To protect respondents’ privacy and prevent the possibility of an employee being identified, OPM does not provide agencies individual responses (i.e., record-level data) to the OPM FEVS. Individual-level data are needed to conduct regression analysis and identify drivers,” the report said.

“The Director of the Office of Personnel Management should assist the 24 CFO Act agencies by using OPM FEVS data to analyze the key drivers of retention for veterans in the agencies’ workforces to identify strategies for improving veteran retention. OPM should also be available to non-CFO Act agencies that request assistance with the veteran retention analysis.”

OPM largely agreed with the recommendation but noted that it could not legally provide record-level data and that it did not have the resources to provide veteran retention analysis for all agencies.

The FEVS has faced its own challenges in 2020, as the survey has been delayed twice due to complications caused by the COVID-19 pandeminc.

The report also noted that individual agencies could analyze exit surveys to determine why certain demographics of people, such as veterans, leave the agency.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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