Baby boomers working in government are beginning to retire en masse and there is critical need to replace them with millennials. Last month, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce held a hearing seeking answers and ideas on how to inspire students to enter the federal service.
“The federal government is the largest employer in the United States and federal service is a noble profession,” said Hawaii Senator and subcommittee chair Daniel Akaka. “Our nation, for the first time in history, is facing a huge retirement wave. The way they surf in Hawaii, we want to take advantage of the wave, and use it wisely as an opportunity to get a good ride.”
Around 273,000 “mission-critical” jobs need to be replaced by September 2012 largely due to retirements, a warning that is hardly new. The average age of a federal employee in 2007—the most recent year with available data—is 47 years old. In 1990, the average age was 42.3 years old.
And despite millions of unemployed Americans looking for work, unemployment is consistently under 5 percent for those with a college degree or higher according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs is growing, particularly in the federal government.
The hearing’s witnesses agreed that attracting top young talent to the federal government is challenging and necessary. Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Social Security Administration Field Operation Locals, characterized hiring the next generation of federal employees as serious because federal employees “are the vital threads of the fabric of American life.” He also praised the Obama administration for “making government service ‘cool’ again.”
There are numerous challenges to attracting qualified students to federal service, including a shortage of skilled talent in areas like nursing, a complicated federal hiring process and increasingly negative rhetoric toward the federal government.
“Unless efforts to destroy the image and middle-class status of federal employees are not halted, it will not make a bit of difference if the Obama Administration creates the best possible recruitment programs,” Skwierczynski noted in his written statement. “A candidate with any sense at all would be reluctant to join a workforce which is constantly being maligned and financially undermined for political purposes.”
Timothy McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service also stressed the level of recent negative discourse toward the government and its consequences. “With anti-government sentiment and fed-bashing on the rise we believe that government may lose its competitive edge that it’s worked so hard to gain over the last several years,” he said at the hearing.
“I think a day doesn’t go by without a story in the newspaper about a fed being overpaid,” McManus told The Nation. “What we’ve seen is the more negative press there is around the federal government the less it is for people to think, ‘Hey, that’s something I want to do.’ ”