How to Address the Federal Brain Drain? Focus On Those Seniors

Youth. Youth. Youth.

Does everything have to be for people who have only one prescription in their eye glasses?

Sometimes it seems the world of business and employment is totally focused on the under-35 set.

That’s a critical demographic, no doubt. But if Uncle Sam wants to get the jump on his private-sector competitors, he’d better pay closer attention to folks with some gray in their hair.

A new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the federal government should do a better job of retaining and hiring older people. Doing so “may serve to make the federal government a more competitive and productive employer overall,” GAO says.

This is an important issue, because so many federal staffers are nearing retirement age. By 2012, one-third of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire. In some agencies it’s 46 percent, almost half.

And in those three years, nearly two-thirds of career executives and almost half of other supervisors can retire from across the government, the report adds.

That doesn’t mean all those people will suddenly have retirement parties. In fact, Sam has good retention rates. Many workers stay on the job five years after they could kick back and play with the grandkids.

Plus with an economy that’s in the tank and slashing retirement savings, lots of people feel they better stay put because they can’t afford to quit.

But they are not going to work forever and the federal government needs to get ready for the day when they walk out the door and don’t come back.

“Eventually baby boomers will leave the workforce and when they do, they will leave behind gaps in leadership, skills, and knowledge,” GAO warns.

Kevin Carroll, a former program executive officer with the Army, is one of those baby boomers who retired 16 months ago. Although he’s fat and happy in retirement, making much more now as a consultant than he did previously, he says he has friends who would be willing to take a pay cut to return to federal employment because of the new atmosphere created by President Obama’s administration.

“The motivation would be the chance to get in there and change some of the stuff we didn’t agree with,” said Carroll, sounding relaxed during a phone interview from a race track in sunny Ft. Lauderdale.

But that motivation alone would not be enough. The key to getting retired talent back is a change in federal law that cuts rehired employees’ pay by the amount of their pension.

Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are pushing legislation that would do just that. It would allow Uncle Sam to rehire federal workers part-time without giving up any of their annuity, as current law requires.
Their retirement benefits, however, would not grow based on that additional employment.

“Giving the government the flexibility to call on retired federal workers will help slow the government’s impending brain drain,” Kohl said. “This bill will ensure that our most experienced federal employees will be paid fairly for their continued contributions.”

Another bill sponsored by Kohl, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, would make it more inviting for federal employees to work part-time near the end of their government service. This bill, sponsored by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), would allow Civil Service Retirement System annuities to be pro-rated for the period when the employee worked part-time.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said “a particularly important impact” of this legislation is “it would help agencies in their succession planning by allowing them to retain the expertise of senior staff for a longer period of time to mentor and otherwise assist newer employees.”

The Partnership for Public Service is working to bring older folks into government who previously worked elsewhere. It has a pilot program that tries to match IBM retirees and current workers nearing retirement with the staffing needs of the Treasury Department, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Energy Department’s office of environmental management.

The outsiders can help Sam fill critical positions the Partnerships says are in such areas as national security, public health, safety and law enforcement. To do that, the government “must dramatically change its current outreach, recruitment and hiring practices,” says a Partnership report, “many of which tend to create barriers to attracting outside talent.”

Contact Joe Davidson at

By Eric Pianin  |  February 25, 2009; 7:20 PM ET
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