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25 Percent of Feds Plan on Retiring Within 5 Years

Imagine 150,000 people vanishing all at once. If you’re having trouble picturing it, it might be because that number is roughly a quarter of the federal workforce. According to a recent survey of government employees, it’s also the approximate number of them who plan on retiring within five years or less.

The stunning statistic is one of the many interesting findings in this year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). Begun in 2002 under a different name, FEVS is now an annual survey of the federal workforce’s moods and opinions. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts the poll each year, and the 2018 edition suggests major changes may lie ahead for America’s highest level of government.

OPM attempted to survey the entire federal workforce for the 2018 FEVS, inviting all 1,473,870 employees to participate. About 41 percent responded, with 598,003 employees across 82 agencies weighing in. The 2018 FEVS was conducted online in two waves, with the first starting April 30 and the second May 7. The results – which are within a 1 percent margin of error – explain how public servants feel about their agencies, their jobs and their work.

This year’s FEVS found that 4 percent of the federal workforce – or 23,237 employees – plans on retiring within one year. That percent grows to 10 percent – 57,515 people – between one and three years, and 11 percent – 63,707 workers – between three and five years. This means that about a quarter of federal employees – 144,459 people – plans on retiring within the next half-decade. The remaining 75 percent – 420,975 employees – plans on retiring within five or more years.

Pollsters also discovered that 6 percent of federal workers – 34,908 people – have retirement turnover plans this year. Eighteen percent plan on taking a different job within the federal government, while 4 percent plan on taking a different job outside of it. Five percent had other turnover plans, and 67 percent had no plans to leave their federal role.

OPM additionally observed that most federal employees come from Generation X as they were born between 1965 and 1980. This group comprises 43 percent of the total federal workforce, followed by 35 percent from the Baby Boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964. The oldest generation, Traditionalists born in 1945 or earlier, makes up 1 percent of the federal population. The youngest generation – Generation Y, often called the millennial generation – includes people born in 1981 or later. This section comprises 21 percent of the total federal workforce.

A flood of exiting retirees would present the federal government with a dilemma. Departing workers would leave with experience and institutional knowledge that’s not easily replaced. The exodus would also force the federal government to compete more fiercely with the private sector for available talent. It’s a process that will likely take agencies more energy and time with fewer people to complete.

Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert said in an October 2018 statement that the latest FEVS survey would inform the federal government’s future workforce moves.

“The 2018 FEVS results are especially critical as we strive to make our government more effective, efficient, and accountable to American taxpayers,” she said. “As the United States faces the challenge of serving the diverse needs of our growing country, we will do all we can to help ensure the Federal workforce is prepared to meet America’s needs in the 21st century.”

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Startling figures, but I’m glad the FEVS results are already being employed to work toward making our government more effective and efficient and keeping talent excited to work in the public sector. Great piece – can’t believe more folks aren’t talking about this!

Mark Hammer

The Canadian federal government has asked similar questions on their FEVS-equivalent, administered every 3 years. Some 15 years back, I was privileged to have access to the master data file, which permits more nuanced analysis than what gets publicly released. Employees were asked if they planned to leave the Public Service within the next few years, but were also asked why. There were a dozen or so reasons listed, and respondents were not restricted to selecting only one. I was able to pull out data for employees 55 years old and above, who had indicated “retiring” as a reason for their anticipated departure. But what I was also able to do was group those selected respondents into those who had *also* selected reasons the employer COULDN’T do anything about (health, family obligations, etc.) and those the employer COULD do something about (conflicts with other staff, make better use of my skills and training, pursue other employment opportunities, etc.). Roughly 10% of those indicating plans to retire in the near future fell into the broader category of what I referred to as “salvageable” retirements; that is, people deciding to retire because their work or workplace wasn’t giving them what they felt they needed or deserved, rather than retiring because of something out of the employer’s control..

It is my understanding from other research, that people tend to retire from primary employment within +/-2 years of when they think/say they will retire. Sometimes leaving earlier for unexpected health problems, and sometimes sticking around to see an exciting project through or because their retirement investments had taken a beating. In my own case, I left before I was planning to (a year ago). The numbers worked out well-enough that it wasn’t financially punitive. But more importantly, I was being under-utilized, and had had enough of that. I count myself among the potentially “salvageable” retirees.

If 25% of staff are planning to retire within the next few years, I think it behooves HR planners both within and beyond the federal public service to consider what an exquisite 2nd-career workforce such people could make. Some will undoubtedly be retiring for reasons that impede their “recycling” as employees, but others represent highly competent, knowledgeable people whose skill-set could be put to great use. Volunteer, NGO, and other organizations should make an effort to attract such persons. And if my earlier analysis is right, a chunk of that 25% could be easily persuaded to remain in the saddle longer IF their work environment and duties/role were reshaped in a more positive manner.

And as an aside to Blake, I have been pleasantly surprised by just how much use of FEVS datasets keeps showing up in the public administration journals. Kudos to both OPM and academics for making productive use of the data gathered. Keep feeding them, public servants!