The ticking time bomb in the federal workforce

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

In mid-2014 I wrote a post asking What Happened to All of the Young Federal Employees? At the time, the number of federal workers under age 30 was dropping precipitously, while at the same time the workforce was aging rapidly. I wish I could report that the government had gotten its act together and had more balanced hiring and retention, but — sadly — that is not the case.

Let’s look at the numbers. Employment of folks under 30 peaked in 2010, with 239,000 of the 2.1 million federal employees being under 30 and 225,000 being 60 and older. When I last wrote about this subject, the government had only 176,000 employees under 30 and 268,000 age 60 and older. In the most recent data from OPM’s FedScope, we see the numbers are getting worse, with only 162,600 under age 30. Viewed as a percentage of the total federal workforce, those age 30 and under make up only 7.9 percent of the total.

So what’s the problem? Why should we care that the federal workforce is aging and the number of under-30 employees dropping?  After all, study after study touts the virtues of older workers— reliable, highly skilled and able to work long past what used to be viewed as normal retirement age. All of those things are true. There is nothing wrong with a federal employee working as long as he or she wants. The problem is that agencies need younger employees who can learn the agency mission and move up into leadership roles. We have seen what happens when agencies lose their younger employees.

Fed Employment trend by age group Sep 2009 thru Sep 2015

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During the Clinton Administration, the government decided to eliminate large numbers of Human Resources and Procurement jobs. Agencies stopped hiring, the people in those occupations did what we all do if we are lucky (aging), and now agencies struggle to find good talent for senior HR and procurement roles. It may not have appeared to be a problem in the year 2000, but it is a big problem now. That problem is repeating itself, but now on a much larger scale and for different reasons.

The cutbacks in HR and Procurement were a public policy decision. The National Performance Review concluded that government had too many “central control” positions and set about to get rid of half of them. Agencies chose to accomplish the cuts by consolidating, stopping hiring, using buyouts and letting attrition take its toll. Those of us in HR leadership positions in those days could not bring new talent on board for years.

Where we are today

Fast forward to 2014 and 2015, where we saw large increases in the number of new hires under 30. The problem is that when we look at those numbers as a percentage of total hires, we see that the percentage of new hires who are under 30 edged up slightly in 2014, then went right back to the 2013 level of 32.1 percent.

New Hires by Age Group 2013 – 2015

The root causes of the problems today are clear. There was clearly a drop in new hiring when the budget battles and the Great Recession began. There was also a precipitous drop when the Federal Career Intern Program was phased out and Pathways was implemented. Combine that with an increased emphasis on hiring veterans and the tremendous number of preference-eligible veterans returning from (sometimes multiple) tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the move from the “Rule of 3” to category ranking, and the result is that it is much harder to hire people directly out of school. Because that group was the source of a high percentage of under-30 hires, the numbers shifted to an older group. One additional factor is the effect of downsizing agencies. Managers who cannot fill every vacancy are less likely to want to hire entry-level folks who require extensive training. The perfect storm that tanked under-30 hiring is still going on and shows no signs of stopping.

Where we will be in the future

I certainly have nothing against hiring older folks (like me). My concern is that the lack of young people in government creates a lot of problems. Here are just a few of them:

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  • The death spiral. People tend to want to see people who look like them in their workplace. As organizations age, they have more and more difficulty in attracting younger hires.
  • Generational diversity. Healthy organizations have employees at every stage of their careers. That age range brings differing views and approaches to dealing with problems. Without it, organizations can become less flexible and effective.
  • Leaders of the future. My biggest fear related to the lack of young people in government is that they are needed to be the leaders in the future. Mid-career folks who have years of experience are essential to healthy organizations. Without them, agencies have more difficulty filling technical expert and leadership jobs. We saw that happen in HR and procurement and it can happen in any occupation.

It is essential that the government have a workforce that represents the people it serves. Census Bureau data shows that 13.9 percent of the American population is between 20 and 30 years of age. Young people are significantly underrepresented in the federal government workforce. The Congress and OPM need to take steps to address the problem. Simply telling agencies to do better will not make it happen. We need an easier and more effective way of doing college recruiting and hiring, along with more effective ways of hiring young Veterans (who have a far higher than average unemployment rate). It is in the government’s interest to not bypass an entire generation of workers.


Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.