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Federal Agency Succession Planning (Part 1): Is 50 the new 30?

Our previous blog entry discussed the entrepreneurial mindset and how successful entrepreneurs consider problems to be opportunities, rather than barriers or limits. One of the greatest benefits of the entrepreneurial mindset is that it is not solely constrained to business endeavors: it is a concept that finds relevance in a wide-range of applications. The ability to uncover why a problem has occurred is paramount to ensuring a viable solution. Furthermore, having the ability to predict a potential problem before it even occurs, gives you a substantial leg up on arriving at a solution and circumventing that risk before it becomes too large to surmount. With that in mind, let’s jump to a tangential discussion point: the aging federal workforce, and why that could be a problem down the road.

OPM.gov provides a full breakdown of the age distributions for permanent full-time federal employees, dating back to the year 2000. As of 2017, the average age of the civilian federal workforce was 47.5 years old, with the average length of service being 13.6 years. The average age of the federal workforce has been hovering around that 46 to 47-year-old range since, at least, the year 2000 according to the OPM breakdown.  Nearly 60% of federal workers are 45 years of age or older, while approximately 16% are below the age of 35. This draws stark contrast with the private sector, which sees nearly 40% of their workforce falling below the age of 35. Now, to be fair, having experienced, grizzled and proven employees making up your workforce is absolutely advantageous, but the private sector appears to be actively replenishing their aging workforce, so why hasn’t the federal government?

Source: U.S. Office of Personnel Management FedScope

Source: U.S. Office of Personnel Management FedScope

A Politico report has found that the reasoning behind this phenomenon is actually quite multi-faceted. Human resource managers have noted that the government is operating using an inefficient and supremely outdated hiring system that hinders their ability to hire and train new employees. Some of the constraints placed on federal agencies have prevented the government from keeping up with more modern management practices and has prevented them from establishing an effective succession pipeline plan. In my own experience, I have found that it’s not only difficult to hire and train new employees, but it is also difficult to retain said employees before they venture off into the private sector. Another roadblock stifling the hiring process is Congress’ inability to complete the federal budget process on time, as federal hiring is dependent on the federal budget and the perpetual continuing resolutions result in hiring freezes. Furthermore, it is important to note that a large percentage of federally employed baby boomers haven’t retired at the rates that were previously predicted. A 1988 Hudson Institute study entitled “Civil Service 2000 predicted that a large percentage of middle-aged government employees would enter retirement age and exit the federal workforce in 2002.

Though the previous warning ultimately proved to be inaccurate, it doesn’t negate the fact that their still appears to be a looming threat with regard to a mass retirement exodus within the federal government. Those vacancies will eventually need to be filled and while the foundations of our institutions remain, it would be foolhardy to rely on SOPs, directives, and guidelines to capture all of the intricacies of the institutional knowledge held by our most senior civilian leaders. You can only pass the buck for so long before a bureaucracy comes apart at the seams. Perhaps now is the moment to invoke the wisdom of President Truman.