WASHINGTON – Thousands of Federal employees are aging out of the workforce, and their retirements may hurt the war on terrorism.
The Defense, State and Transportation departments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — all crucial in fighting the war on terror — could lose up to 45 percent of their workers through retirements in the next five years, according to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.
"If we are going to win the war, we have got to have the people," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.
Voinovich is introducing legislation to institute a human capital officer at each federal agency to oversee the retirement-replacement transition, give agencies more flexibility in hiring and allow workers to qualify for a broader array of paid training.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., a senior member on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, plans to offer legislation providing enhanced student loans and training to people recruited for national security positions.
Voinovich said the federal government must find ways to keep its best workers while recruiting new staff with the skills for a new wave of missions. If not, the "human capital crisis" could mean a shortage in critical workers — for instance, translators who can speak Arabic, Farsi or Pashto.
"It's not just how many, but what kinds," said Frank Cipolla, senior consultant to the National Academy of Public Administration's Center for Human Resources Management.
"Strategic human capital management" is at high risk, according to the GAO. Without identifying key jobs and filling them, the government will not be able to function.
Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, calls government hiring "a quiet crisis."
"The problem with a quiet crisis is you can't get anyone to do anything about it," he said. "I think the key is how do we find ways to make government more attractive."
Last week, President Bush unveiled the Freedom to Manage Act. It gives departments more flexibility in hiring and offering bonuses and encourages agencies to identify government rules that make it harder to manage employees so Congress can consider ending the restrictions.
Nye is helping to organize a series of meetings starting next month at which government officials and private-sector experts will discuss the problem and brainstorm for solutions.
The GAO already has suggested three broad fixes: better pay and benefits; more active recruitment of young people; and reform of antiquated management practices that complicate hiring and fail to address needed skill areas.
One of the current problems is the length of time it takes to go from identifying a certain skill needed and clearing for hire the candidate with the skill. Often, the government's top choice already has accepted another position by the time the offer is made.
The American Federation of Government Employees says the best way to find and keep government workers is to boost pay.
"Recruiting is one way to step up our efforts to get the best and the brightest," union spokeswoman Diane Witiak said. "The real concern is [that] you are going to get a student who is going to come into government for one or two years and then go into the private sector and make twice as much."
Interest in government jobs has surged since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Job inquiries for the armed services and law enforcement have been particularly high. The CIA, for example, went from about 500 employment inquiries a week to more than 10,000 in the two weeks following the attacks.
Voinovich said the increase is gratifying, but probably short-lived unless Congress takes action.
"Our current crisis has identified some of our needs in areas as diverse as airport security to language experts in law enforcement agencies," he said. "Now is the time to act."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.