Facing the Future: Retiring Colleagues, Stagnant Salaries and Intensifying Partisanship Are Top Concerns of Legislative Staffers

By Kurtz, Karl; Rice, Tim | State Legislatures, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

Facing the Future: Retiring Colleagues, Stagnant Salaries and Intensifying Partisanship Are Top Concerns of Legislative Staffers


Kurtz, Karl, Rice, Tim, State Legislatures


It's not always easy being a staffer.

Some legislative staff jobs have been eliminated. Pay and benefits often are cut or frozen. Tensions of an increasingly partisan legislature can sour the workplace environment. A staffer's value is sometimes questioned. Work hours often conflict with family time. And finally, many staffers' baby boomer colleagues are retiring.

These are among the more striking challenges facing legislative staff, according to a recent nationwide NCSL survey of legislative staff managers. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of the nonpartisan staff and three-fourths of the partisan staff who responded expect to leave legislative service before 2021.

It's tempting to conclude the main cause of the anticipated staff turnover is the pending retirements of baby boomers, but researchers found turnover to be a problem among all age groups.

One-quarter of the youngest cohort--between 20 and 34 years old--said they plan to leave legislative service within five years, higher than any other age group. On the other hand, nearly half plan to serve 11 to 15 more years before leaving. That won't make them legislative careerists, but it will give them enough time to build the knowledge and experience legislatures need from their staff.

Staff between 35 and 49 years old led the field among those who said that they expected to leave legislative service within 11 to 15 years. Nearly 60 percent of them said that they planned to be out the door before they turn 65.

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Baby boomers, age 50 to 64, were least likely to say they planned to depart within five years, confirming the trend by the largest generation to delay retirement and work longer than their predecessors.

NCSL's confidential survey asked respondents to rank the importance of 12 potential management challenges. The top three were:

* The loss of skills and experience from retiring senior staff.

* Salary or benefit reductions for staff.

* An influx of new legislators who do not value staff services.

"The impending loss of experienced staff and legislators due to term limits, baby boomers' retirement and private sector salary competition have wreaked havoc on the experience level and effectiveness of legislative staff," one respondent said. "There are still some committee staff who can compete and surpass lobbyists in their policy knowledge and political skill, but it is becoming rarer."

Not everyone views retirement of the older generation negatively. "Although senior staff ... add much wisdom and knowledge of the legislative process, they often block change and fresh ideas," another staffer said. "We are still performing duties that are 20 years out of date because it has always been done that way."

Interestingly, the younger the staff, the less worried they are about the problem of replacing retiring senior staff. Either the older generations value themselves much more than the younger ones do, or the junior staff have a "we'll handle it" attitude.

Hurt by Tight Budgets

Stagnant salaries drew many laments.

"We are going on four years without a salary increase," said one respondent, "and I don't expect an increase in the near future due to the acrimony in our capitol."

"Our aides are paid $30,000 to $40,000," a partisan staffer said. "The legislature has gotten rid of pay raises, so there is no way to stay as legislative staff because we can't make a living. The result is that most of our staff are in their early 30s, with no institutional knowledge."

Public cynicism and distrust of government in general and the legislature in particular also play a role: "Our services are not valued, and we aren't being granted even cost-of-living increases. State employees make 40 percent of what private sector employees make, and the public seems to want to send our best and brightest elsewhere. …

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