Focus on Skills, Not Age in the Federal Workforce

It’s generally accepted that getting hired at a more advanced age is difficult. The age at which someone changes from a desired potential employee to an undesired one is up for debate, but certainly the age factor is a concern for anyone old enough to, say, have been alive during the British Invasion. Not the War of 1812, the other one.

In recent years, especially, the reaction in the federal workforce has been to hunker down late in a career more than ever. The average age and years of service of a federal retiree has been going up. There are several reasons for delaying retirement from the government, including the “golden handcuffs” effect of the federal defined benefit programs.

For employees under CSRS, for example, each additional year of service boosts the multiplier of their high-3 salary by another 2 percentage points. For those under FERS, each additional year is worth only 1 more percentage point—unless the person is approaching the combination of age 62 with 20 years of service. Reaching that bumps the multiplier for all years of service up to 1.1 percent.

Another important factor has been the general state of the job market. It has been a long tradition for federal employees to retire, begin collecting their annuities and then move on to employment elsewhere. With the annuity as a financial base, many didn’t even insist that the post-retirement job be especially high-paying or even full-time. In fact, many aimed at jobs providing more satisfaction than salary, or saw part-time work as the best of both worlds.

But that’s been happening less, resulting in increasing numbers of employees feeling that those golden handcuffs are fitting a little too snugly.

A report by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work might provide a key to get out of them. It notes that despite regardless of the unemployment rate, employers are having trouble filling positions requiring high skill levels. This is true in many fields, the report said, but especially so in professional/scientific/technical, health care and social assistance occupations.

Skills especially in demand include management, legal, operations, IT, customer relations, human resources, finance and administrative support. While shortages in those areas may be bad news for companies, they are good news for federal employees who have those skills—as many later in their careers do.

“As employers compare the skills they have with the skills they need (both today and for the future), they have opportunities to consider whether older workers might help them fill the skills gaps,” the study said. It noted that recruiting competent job applicants was named as the number one human resources challenge among the nearly 1,000 companies polled.

From the employee’s viewpoint, it’s crucial to keep skills and knowledge in your field up to date. That might include taking training that you feel you don’t need, or that pulls you into technology that makes you feel uncomfortable. It might require willingness to enter non-traditional working patterns such as job sharing. It might require branching into a different occupational field where job prospects are better.

Said the study, “It might well be the right time to view today’s older workers as an under-tapped resource that brings some of the experience, skills, and competencies employers need today.”

Seeing later career workers as a resource rather than as a burden. Does that sound like your agency? If not, might you be better off somewhere else?