Demographic changes in the composition of the federal workforce are posing technical and adaptive challenges to the continued smooth functioning of U.S. government agencies. Agency officials must plan to replace an unprecedented percentage of highly skilled and trained employees retiring from federal service, and the remaining managers must learn to lead policy changes with a younger generation that may not share the same values or career goals as their predecessors.
The federal government is not taking full advantage of opportunities to recruit or retain young people. Hiring managers can leverage a variety of human resource policies and programs to attract and hold onto new talent for federal government jobs.
This article quantifies the scope of this challenge by analyzing human resource data on workforce demographics and suggests strategies that federal agencies can use to attract and retain young talent based on a qualitative analysis of younger generations' values and career goals.
Aging Federal Workforce
The federal government workforce is aging. According to human resource data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), approximately 60 percent of the 1.9 million employees of federal agencies will reach retirement age by 2017.
Members of the professional and administrative staff--the largest category of government employees--are highly educated and trained. They will likely be the most important, but difficult, segment of those retiring for managers to replace. As the general population also ages, federal agencies will have to compete even harder with a private sector that may be more prepared to offer incentives for recruitment and retention. At least 62 percent of the nearly one million professionals and administrative personnel who are non-seasonal, full-time, permanent (NSFTP) employees will be eligible to retire over the next decade (Figure 1).
We will not have to wait ten years, though, to start seeing the effects of this demographic change. OPM data show that an increasing number of NSFTP professional and administrative federal personnel are retiring each year in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total number of workers in this job category.
In 2005, OPM projected that 18.5 percent, or nearly 300,000, NSFTP employees would retire from federal service in 2006-10. This estimate has been close to the actual figures. In 2006-07, about 117,000 NSFTP federal personnel retired, about 5,000 (17 percent) more than expected.
Understanding Generational Differences: Values and Career Goals
Effective leaders appreciate and communicate in accordance with employees' values. However, most people who have worked in a multigenerational office recognize that individuals of different ages often have age-specific motivations and goals. This section discusses how the values of Generations X and Y may vary from those of their parents' and grandparents' cohorts and the implications these differences may have for recruiting and retaining younger federal workers.
The federal workforce features four overlapping generations: traditionalists/ veterans, baby boomers, Generation X/baby busters, and Generation Y/millenials.
Born before the end of World War II, traditionalists make up less than 10 percent of the federal workforce. In 2007, about 35 percent of traditionalists working as professionals and administrative personnel in the federal government left their agencies. Nearly all of those who left retired from federal service (Figure 2).
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Although exceptions abound, traditionalists generally tend to value security, loyalty, and persistence, even if holding to these principles means deferring or sacrificing some personal rewards. They strengthen relationships at work through …