Canton Repository

October 24, 2011

Looming loss of federal workers worries Voinovich 


WASHINGTON — More than half of federal employees will be eligible for regular or early retirement in 2004, yet few Americans are interested in going to work for the federal government. Who will replace those who leave, and how competent will they be?

That’s a growing concern among some lawmakers, including Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who calls it a “looming human capital crisis.”

Voinovich and Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., will introduce separate bills this week that aim to improve the way the federal workplace is managed with the goal of retaining and attracting talented employees.

Several organizations, including the recently formed Partnership for Public Service, also are weighing in on the issue. 

“The events of the last five weeks (following the Sept. 11 attacks) have made the case for effective government,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the partnership. “We appreciate government workers, but we still don’t want to be them.”

The key federal human resources agency, the Office of Personnel Management, is less worried about the future. The agency administers the merit system for 1.8 million civilian employees who work for the executive branch.

“The government has for some time been looking at succession planning, as well as various recruitment and retention incentives that can be used to allow us to compete effectively with the private sector for top talent,” said Michael Orenstein, spokesman for the office. “We are well on our way toward our goal.”

Orenstein acknowledged that many federal employees will be eligible to retire. But, at least in the past, most choose to work several years past their retirement age, he said. The average retirement age has been 61.

Those who argue that the government faces a crisis are calling for better marketing of government jobs, more opportunities for advancement, pay that is competitive with the private sector and better resources for federal employees.

Samuel J. Heyman, chairman and chief executive officer of GAF Corp., donated $25 million to establish the Partnership for Public Service because of his desire to restore the luster to government service.

“I remember what government service was like” in the 1960s, he said, when, fresh out of Harvard Law School, he went to work for U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Since then, interest in government careers has waned.

For example, in 1980, three-fourths of the graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government went to work for the public sector. By this year, it was down to one-third who chose careers in government, according to a Kennedy School report.

Polls conducted after the Sept. 11 attack indicate that Americans have a more positive view of their federal government than before, but only 18 percent indicated an increased interest in government service, pollster Peter Hart said.

Voinovich’s legislation would create the position of chief human capital officer in major federal departments and agencies to oversee management reforms. It also would create tax incentives for college graduates to work for government, make it easier to confront poorly performing employees, improve training and speed up the hiring process.

Federal employees, most of whom contribute to and collect from the Social Security system, also receive a federal pension. Based on their years of government service, they can retire as early as age 55.