Three Surprises about the Federal Workforce

This week I’m attending Federally Employed Women’s National Training Program in New Orleans. FEW logo

The conference offers a myriad of training and development opportunities, but I decided to start off my day with an overview of “What All Feds need to Know about the Workforce.”

The presenter, Jamie Neidig, Practice Director for Human Resources and Human Capital at Management Concepts, offered a number of great data points about how the workforce is changing. However, the biggest takeaway of her presentation was that you need to look beyond superficial data points in order to really understand what’s happening in the federal public sector.

Here are three surprises we found, when we delved a little deeper into federal workplace data:

The “retirement wave” is really an undercurrent
You’ve probably heard this scary statistic a time or two: More than one third of federal employees and almost two-thirds of SES-ers will be retirement eligible by September 2017.

An immediate assessment of that figure might lead you to think that the federal government is imminently facing a depletion of its workforce. However, Neidig said that those numbers don’t tell the full story. In fact, the picture is a little brighter.

While the eligible employees will eventually retire, they will likely do so in steps over an extended period of time. Neidig mentioned a number of factors that are dissuading personnel from taking their retirement upon eligibility:

  • Economic losses – Many potential retirees are still trying to financially recover from the early 2000 crash.
  • Boomerang children – Due to the recovering job market, many young adults are choosing to return to their parents’ home upon graduation from college, placing additional financial strain on potential retirees.
  • Supporting parents who are living longer – Due to improved healthcare and quality of life, many retiree’s parents are living longer. Again, this places additional financial burden on boomers.
  • Healthy and active – Potential retirees are reaping the rewards of healthcare and quality of life improvements, too. As a result, they feel less inclined to exit federal service due to health concerns of extended work.
  • Satisfied in their careers – As agencies provide more flexibility in scheduling and benefits, particularly programs like the OPM Phased Retirement Program that allows eligible personnel to work part-time, employees are less likely to think they must sacrifice their personal lives to remain employed. Therefore, they are not as eager to enter full retirement.

Millennials are not so bad
Data shows that millennials are taking the government by storm. There are more of them and they are more likely to take a leadership track than generations before them. However, a lot of qualitative data also implies that more experienced federal employees aren’t happy with that trend or the generation that fulfills it. When Neidig asked the conference group what they thought of millennials, we heard words like “entitled,” “inexperienced,” and “pushy,” for instance.

However, “The more data we get about them, the more we found out we’re wrong,” said Neidig. In fact, millennials are becoming a positive force in government. For one thing, they have more education qualifications than the generations that directly precede them. What’s more, data shows that they are more optimistic about the future and more willing to help shape tomorrow for the better.

So why the disconnect? What makes people think of millennials as bad contributors to the workplace? Neidig said a large stumbling block is the issue of entitlement, where many older generations perceive millennials as asking for too much, too soon in their careers.

However, Neidig emphasized that many of those expectations are actually desires of all generations – things like better pay and work-life balance – expressed differently and with more strength. What’s more, Neidig said the reason we hear these brought up so often is because millennials often enter the workforce with more college debt and lower paychecks than ever before.

“Millennials don’t have different wants than other generations,” said Neidig. “They just seem like they are better at getting it done because they have to!” So instead of thinking of millennials as entitled, maybe we should think of them as empowered champions for making changes in government.

Degrees aren’t everything
Neidig showed us that the five top fields for hiring in the federal sector are human resources, homeland security, information technology, cyber, and engineering. Similarly, the top five fastest growing industries in government are homeland security, healthcare, biotechnology, information technology, and energy.

When you take a glimpse at those lists, you might think that you need a PhD or highly specialized degree to get the job. If you’re already in government, you might fear that your skill set is becoming obsolete.

However, Neidig said that there are many opportunities within those fields that don’t require specialized knowledge. For instance, many of the roles within homeland security like emergency response management, border protection, and investigation require on-the-job acquired technical skills rather than degree-certified specializations.

What’s more, many of the competencies that OPM identified as most in need, including strategic thinking, influencing and negotiating, and problem solving, are highly applicable across all roles and don’t require an advanced degree to obtain. Even data analysis – another competency in high demand by the federal government – can be acquired through non-degree courses and certification programs.

What more can federal workforce data tell us? According to Neidig, the possibilities are endless when it comes to using data to better understand and plan the workforce of the future. However, the key is to make sure that you look at all the data, to ensure that you get the full, actionable picture.



Photo Credit: Flickr/theilr

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