Older Workers:

Enhanced Communication among Federal Agencies Could Improve Strategies for Hiring and Retaining Experienced Workers

GAO-09-206: Published: Feb 24, 2009. Publicly Released: Feb 24, 2009.

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The federal workforce, like the nation's workforce as a whole, is aging, and increasingly large percentages are becoming eligible to retire. Eventually baby boomers will leave the workforce and when they do, they will leave behind gaps in leadership, skills, and knowledge due to the slower-growing pool of younger workers. GAO and others have emphasized the need for federal agencies to hire and retain older workers to help address these shortages. Building upon earlier testimony, GAO was asked to examine (1) age and retirement eligibility trends of the current federal workforce and the extent to which agencies hire and retain older workers; (2) workforce challenges selected agencies face and the strategies they use to hire and retain older workers; and (3) actions taken by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to help agencies hire and retain experienced workers. To address these questions, GAO analyzed data from OPM's Central Personal Data File, interviewed officials at three agencies with high proportions of workers eligible to retire, and identified agencies' promising practices to hire and retain older workers. What GAO Recommends

The proportion of federal employees eligible to retire is growing. While this proportion varies across agencies, in four agencies--the Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Small Business Administration, and the Department of Transportation--46 percent of the workforce will be eligible to retire by 2012, well above the governmentwide average of 33 percent. While these eligibility rates suggest that many will retire, the federal government has historically enjoyed relatively high retention rates, with 40 percent or more of federal employees remaining in the workforce for at least 5 years after becoming eligible. Beyond retaining older workers, in fiscal year 2007, federal agencies hired almost 14,000 new workers who were 55 years of age or older and brought back about 5,400 federal retirees to address workforce needs. The increasing numbers of retirement-eligible federal workers present challenges and opportunities. The three agencies we reviewed (HUD, SSA, and USAID) share common challenges. All have large proportions of employees nearing retirement, and according to officials, due to past hiring freezes all have relatively few midlevel staff to help pass down knowledge and skills to less experienced employees. Officials from all three agencies also told us that they have difficulty attracting qualified staff with specialized skills. To address these challenges, the three agencies rely on older workers in different ways. USAID brings back its knowledgeable and skilled retirees as contractors to fill short-term job assignments and to help train and develop the agency's growing number of newly hired staff. SSA uses complex statistical models to project potential retirements in mission critical occupations and uses these data to develop recruitment efforts targeted at a broad pool of candidates, including older workers. While all three agencies rely on older workers to pass down knowledge and skills to junior staff, HUD officials told us this is the primary way they involve older workers, due in part to the agency's focus on recruiting entry-level staff. In addition, some federal agencies have developed practices that other agencies might find useful in tapping older workers to meet short-term needs. For example, the Department of State has developed databases to match interested retirees with short-term assignments requiring particular skills. To help agencies hire and retain an experienced workforce, OPM provides guidance, including support tools and training, and has taken steps to address areas of concern to older workers. For example, OPM has initiated actions to streamline the federal application process and to eliminate barriers that deter some federal retirees from returning to federal service or from working part-time at the end of their careers. However, although some federal agencies have developed strategies that could be used effectively by other agencies to hire and retain experienced workers to meet workforce needs, this information is not widely available. And, while OPM has other methods available--such as its human capital and electronic government practices Web sites--that could be used to efficiently package and broadly disseminate this information to a much larger audience, it currently has no plans to do so.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, OPM reported that it already had tools available on its web site to help federal agencies attract, recruit, and retain talented workers, including older workers. However, GAO believed that the web site did not discuss the promising practices that had been developed by individual federal agencies and, as a consequence, this information was not readily available governmentwide. Widespread dissemination of agency-developed promising practices would help federal agencies build upon the experiences of others in developing strategies to meet workforce challenges. In 2011, OPM posted information about agency-developed promising practices in recruiting and retaining older, experienced workers on its Website that provides tools to recruiters for federal jobs. In addition, the topic of older workers has been the focus of a recent meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO Academy), which is a forum for members of the CHCO community to share best practices in the strategic management of human capital.

    Recommendation: To better assist agencies in attracting and retaining a highly skilled workforce, the Director of OPM should develop a systematic approach, which may include communicating through the Chief Human Capital Officer Council, to share information broadly across the federal government about agency-developed promising practices in recruitment and retention of older, experienced workers to meet their workforce needs.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management


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