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State Worker Exodus

 In 2002 the Council of State Governments and the National Association of State Personnel Executives issued a report entitled “State Employee Worker Shortages: The Impending Crisis,” which referenced estimates showing “state governments could lose more than 30 percent of their workforce by 2006” due to retirements of aging Baby Boomers and budgetary constraints. That prediction was partly right. Although the report’s authors couldn’t have had any idea it was coming, the Great Recession forced governments to shed 706,000 jobs between April 2009 and June 2012, according to The New York Times. But in addition to the time discrepancy, the job losses constituted far less than 30 percent of the roughly 22 million people employed by the government going into the recession.


By most accounts, however, the so-called “silver tsunami” of Baby Boomer retirements is still on the way. Boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- began turning 65 in 2011. But most opted to put off retirement because of the recession. Now that the economy has picked up, there’s less incentive for them to stick around and, with pension reforms being enacted around the country, more reason to leave.


“Folks get nervous there will be fundamental changes to their retirement benefits or medical benefits,” said Martin Anderson, Connecticut’s deputy commissioner of administrative services, “so there’s an incentive to leave now and lock in what you have.”


There are signs the tide of retirements is rising. As Stateline reported last June, about 4,900 state employees in Texas retired last fiscal year, a more than 10 percent increase over 2012 and a nearly 50 percent increase over 2009. About 2,300 state employees in Kentucky retired this fiscal year, 62 percent more than in 2010. And 49 percent of the nearly 300 state and local human resources officials surveyed last year by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence said retirements were up in 2013 compared to 2012.


Public employers are also having a hard time attracting and holding onto workers at the other end of the age spectrum who possess skills that are very much in demand in the workplace.


“Millennials are a very important constituency and talent pool to pull from,” Lisa Danzig, associate director for personnel and performance at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, told The Washington Post in December, adding that there was “a lot of competition” for their talent.


The federal government’s cause hasn’t been helped by the recent government shutdown, furloughs and pay freezes or by a federal hiring process that often pits Millennials against more experienced candidates or military veterans who receive preferential treatment. Consequently, last year the proportion of federal workers under the age of 30 dropped to its lowest level in almost a decade (7 percent), according to the Post.


There may be a bit more for Millennials to like at the state and local level, with a 2014 study by Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, finding that public employees still generally receive more lucrative pay and benefits packages than their private-sector counterparts. But the study also indicated that there’s considerable variation from state to state, with some offering compensation packages above or below market level. And as Stateline reported, Mimi Collins, communications director for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which surveys thousands of students seeking employment each year, said states will have to work harder to compete for graduates in competitive fields like information technology, finance and engineering, where private-sector workers can earn $70,000 or more straight out of college.


“That is absolutely the challenge,” Leslie Scott, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, told Stateline. “At some point, there’s going to have to be a change in compensation -- and not just pay, but benefits.”


Kelly Samson-Rickert director of workforce development for Maine’s Office of Information Technology (OIT), likewise, said, “We can’t pay enough in the marketplace.”


“That’s where we lose people,” she said.


Not everyone shares that view, however. Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said last January that it would be foolish for his state to try to keep pace with private-sector pay in an economic boom, according to the Austin American-Statesman.


Some of the government workforce reductions are by design. For instance, Florida has nearly 10,000 fewer government positions now than it did in 2000, due as much to its GOP-controlled Legislature and a string of Republican governors running on government downsizing platforms since the late 1990s as to budget pressures, Boomer retirements or migrating Millennials. Current Gov. Rick Scott (R) has cut the state’s workforce by nearly 10 percent since taking office in 2011, according to a story last October by WGCU Radio and The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. And Scott hasn’t hesitated to tout those efforts. In a speech he gave at a conservative political conference in his first year in office in which he boasted,We’ve generated 87,200 private sector jobs,” he went on to say: “And we have 15,000 less government jobs in the state of Florida” and “government doesn’t create jobs.”


But not everyone sees the privatization and outsourcing of government services as a positive.


“What happens when they do that they leave less employees to do the work that is left,” Tallahassee AFSCME President Jeannette Wynn told WGCU. “That means people are doing two or three people’s jobs. Not necessarily a one-person job anymore. Maybe where you had 10 people to do a job, now you have three people to do those duties. And it has not been a very positive outcome for the state nor has it been a positive outcome for the workers.”


Wynn may have been referring to an investigative series on Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) by the Miami Herald last April. The series, entitled “Innocents Lost,” revealed that after the DCF, which shed 48 percent, or 12,000, of its staff between 2003 and 2013, adopted a policy of keeping children in troubled homes in an effort to cut costs and reduce its workload, child deaths in the state “soared [and] the children died in ways cruel, outlandish, predictable and preventable.”


“There was this policy that children were better off left with their parents even when they were -- and they often were -- in grave danger,” series co-reporter Carol Marbin Miller told WGCU. “And the state wasn’t devoting the resources necessary to protect those kids who were being left with drug addicted and mentally-ill parents.”


The government workforce situation in general, however, seems less dire. Although on a national basis roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day until the year 2030, “the prospect in most agencies,” as Governing stated in a Dec. 2013 story, “is for a steady flow of retirements over a longer period, rather than a tsunami occurring all at once.” The publication noted the boomer generation spans almost 20 years, and retirement eligibility and benefits vary.


“The assumption that the 8,000 to 10,000 people who turn 65 every day are going to announce they’re out of here is just not the case,” said Neil Reichenberg, executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources.


A May 2014 survey of human resource professionals by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence also found that most governments were hiring more workers and laying off fewer.


Government agencies are trying creative ways to attract the next generation of public employees as well. For example, as Stateline reported, Samson-Rickert has been working with local colleges to recruit students and graduates to Maine’s OIT, which provides computer services to all of the state’s departments and agencies. The new recruits work as paid interns for 20-40 hours a week for three to six months under the mentorship of current employees, which offers benefits for both groups.


“It’s offered a wealth of experience for [the interns],” she said. “We’ve brought about 80 percent of them on board [full-time]. And it’s also developing the supervisory skills of the mentors.”


Heidi Voorhees, president of the local government consulting firm Voorhees Associates, said such mentoring arrangements also offer an opportunity for Baby Boomers who aren’t quite ready to call it quits to work part-time or temporarily, according to Governing.


“A lot of them want to continue working in some capacity,” she said. “It’s a perfect match,” although Governing noted that rules complicate things in some states, such as Illinois, which limits the number of hours such “public employees-turned-contractors” can work.


Kelly Powell Logan, Pennsylvania’s secretary of administration, meanwhile, told Governing that her office was planning for a future with a very different workforce, a process that involved reassessing the core functions of government. But she seemed confident her state was up to the job.


“If we continue to plan and make sure we’re hiring for the right positions, it’s not an insurmountable challenge,” she said.


The fact remains, however, that federal, state and local governments will lose potentially millions of workers and the tens of millions of years of institutional knowledge they possess in the years ahead. And many of those governments are unprepared for that task, due in part to reductions in professional development budgets in recent years, according to Voorhees. Making matters worse, funding for recruitment efforts may actually become even more scarce in the coming years, with per-capita revenues likely to decline for many state and local governments as their highest income, sales and property tax payers -- those between the ages of 45 and 54, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey -- shift into retirement.