Agencies with the Oldest Workforces Prepare for Exodus of Retirees

Federal officials have been crying out in alarm for years about a “retirement wave” on its way as their baby boomer employees reach pension eligibility. We’ve gotten so used to it that is has become easy to drown out.

The issue is coming to a head within some agencies. Over the last decade, voluntary retirement has spiked eighteen percent across the federal government. It is estimated that currently one in seven federal employees are eligible for retirement. Within a few agencies, the rate jumps to one in five and nearly half of their workforces in 5 years.

Almost a quarter of employees at the Housing and Urban Development Department are eligible to retire currently, the highest rate of any large agency in government. According to Suzanne Tufts, the department’s assistant secretary of administration, HUD has been considering and preparing for it “for quite some time.”

HUD’s secretary, Ben Carson, has “directed everyone [in leadership] to make the vibrancy and the succession planning of their workforce not only top of mind, but to start really thinking and cooperating together and working very carefully together to make that a reality,” Tufts said.

Efforts include weekly meetings attended by Tufts, Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude, Chief Human Capital Officer Towanda Brooks, and their respective staffs to hold a discussion about the new vacancies and efforts for recruitment. To assist hiring managers with position management and organizational design, HUD has assigned human resources business partners to each of its program offices. Detailed information has been gathered by officials on both the department’s mission-critical and high-risk operations to form a hiring strategy.

“We have very good data on where are people in terms of tenure,” Tufts said. “Each regional office and each program office can overlay that data to see where are the highest risks of potentially losing to retirement a mission-critical person so we can think about where to backfill that.”

Changing the way it markets its positions, HUD is working closely with “mission people” and “not just HR people.” HUD has been utilizing LinkedIn, sending regional directors to college campuses, recruiting spouses on military bases and generally trying to boost media and technology savviness of employees.

Twenty-one percent of NASA’s employees are eligible to retire. That percentage will jump to forty-four percent in five years. Though, agency officials are not concerned with any coming wave. Spokeswoman Katherine Brown has said that the agency’s work is so interesting that the employees like sticking around.

“NASA is consistently ranked the best place to work in the federal government, and employees are highly committed to the mission, and because of this, we have some of the lowest attrition rates in the federal government,” said Brown.

To help plan for workforce needs in the future, the agency engages in attrition forecasting but is not anticipating any acute cause for concern.

“We do expect attrition rates to gradually increase over the next decade due to a higher proportion of retirement-eligible employees,” Brown said, “but do not anticipate that we will experience a sudden retirement wave.”

Environmental Protection Agency employees are also eligible to retire at a rate of 1 in 5. Employees’ dedication to mission as responsible for the higher rate was pointed to by a spokesperson but said the agency is beginning to take action.

“EPA is aware of its workforce demographics and their potential impacts on the agency in the near future,” the spokesperson said. “The agency is taking this significant challenge seriously and is launching agency-wide initiatives focused on workforce planning and succession management. We appreciate the contributions of our career employees and look forward to welcoming a new generation of talented and dedicated environmental professionals.”

Officials at HUD are not just focusing on recruiting new employees but urging the current workforce to stick around. HUD is expanding its mentoring program as a means to help junior employees learn from more senior colleagues as well as engaging in other “knowledge transfer and capture” initiatives. The department is using its increasing role as a disaster response agency, Tufts said, as a new means to motivate employees and spread expertise.

Tufts finds encouragement in the feedback HUD officials have received at universities, where studies pertaining to the department’s mission are expanding.

“There’s so many people on college campuses and so many good programs in urban policy, urban planning, even rural issues,” she said. “The whole issue of disasters and disaster management which wasn’t a form of study in the past is there now. There is a passion.”

Since 2009, HUD’s workforce has shrunk by more than twenty percent. Tufts said this is actually making it more difficult to prepare for upcoming retirements. Strategic planning “does require resources, [both] people and financial,” she noted.
The staffing shortage is also having an effect on HUD in a broader sense. The department’s programmatic funding has increased, she said, pointing to a $28 billion emergency spending surge Congress awarded to HUD in response to Hurricane Maria’s damage in Puerto Rico and other disasters around the country.

“You can’t have good programs without good people and without an adequate number of people,” Tufts said. “We don’t deliver our services with robots, and good people don’t fall out of the trees.”
She stressed that “the passion for housing and housing fairness is out there,” and it was up to herself as well as her team to draw people to the department. Still, she said she could use a little help from Congress.

“We need money and people, in a nutshell,” Tufts said.

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