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The warning sign in front of the federal workforce could not be clearer: Change Ahead. As the Government Accountability Office put it in a recent report: “Today’s federal workforce consists of a large number of employees who are eligible for retirement . . . by 2017, about 31 percent of the government’s permanent career employees [on board as of September 2012] will be able to head out the door. Given the state of the economy over the past several years, government has held on to its experienced employees for longer than anticipated, but retirements are back on the rise.”

The Office of Personnel Management, using a slightly different time frame and a slightly different set of employees, says that 42 percent of those employed as of July 2013 will be retirement-eligible by July 2018. By either count, large numbers of federal employees should be preparing for retirement—now, not at some vague future date. That means attending retirement planning seminars, reading about their benefit eligibility, gathering the needed documents and more. That’s especially true because agencies have again turned to offering early retirement opportunities and buyouts to encourage employees to leave the rolls earlier than they would have otherwise.

The “window” for an offer commonly opens and closes quickly. It’s the well-prepared person who will be in the best position when such an opportunity arises. For those not eligible to retire in the years just ahead, job openings created by older employees leaving means opportunity to move up. However, they too should be preparing, with training and other career development. Unfortunately, the government has cut funding for such programs in recent years as agency budgets have been notably tight. That is changing, however. The government recognizes that it should be helping employees to move up and that without such preparation the government of the future may flounder.

According to GAO: “Some amount of retirement and other forms of attrition can be beneficial because it creates opportunities to bring fresh skills on board and allows organizations to restructure themselves in order to better meet program goals and fiscal realities. But if turnover is not strategically managed and monitored, gaps can develop in an organization’s institutional knowledge and leadership as experienced employees leave.” Already there is serious discussion in Washington regarding using the upcoming turnover as an opening to revamp basic federal workplace policies ranging from job classification and evaluation to advancement. Again, those who are prepared will be in the best position when that day comes.

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