There has been a big focus on improving federal recruitment and hiring during the past two years, particularly for some mission-critical occupations. But this is only half the battle. More than ever, federal agencies must also spend time, attention and resources to retain key talent.

Employee attrition in the federal government historically has been quite low, but ignoring the importance of employee turnover, particularly in an environment of budget cuts and hiring constraints, would be a mistake for government managers, workforce planners and human resources professionals.

My organization, the Partnership for Public Service, estimates that 108,000 federal workers out of a workforce of more than two million will leave their jobs during fiscal 2012, a combination of retirements that now are on the rise and voluntary departures. If our estimate holds true, attrition this year will be higher than in any of the three past fiscal years.

Of course, not all attrition is bad. On the plus side, attrition can potentially create space in an agency for new talent, remove poor performers and provide promotion opportunities. Loss of employees to retirement and other opportunities should also force agencies to think twice about what positions are really needed to deliver their mission and can help reshape the agency’s workforce.

On the negative side, the loss of talent can deal a serious blow to an agency’s operational capacity and performance if the departing employees leave with institutional knowledge and organizational savvy. Attrition of recently hired employees also means a loss of the considerable investment spent to bring them on board and develop them.

Researchers have reported that the financial cost to replace a private sector employee generally can run from 50 percent to 200 percent of the employee’s annual salary, depending on the individual’s role, seniority, specialization, performance level and training received while on the job.

In government, however, the consequences may involve a lot more than time and money. Attrition can potentially jeopardize an agency’s ability to perform its core mission, whether that is a homeland security, responding to a pandemic, providing timely services to our veterans or monitoring the integrity of our financial markets.

In a report released by the Partnership for Public Service, we recommended the following steps to help agencies understand attrition:

  • Use agency-specific data taken from your human resources information system, payroll systems, the Central Personnel Data File, FedScope or other sources to identify the characteristics of departing employees. Pay particular attention to attrition of the recently hired, those who retired, and those in mission-critical occupations. Also keep an eye out for those eligible to retire.
  • Conduct exit surveys, by individual departments or agencies, of departing employees. Although exit data typically is limited in terms of the candor of responses and response rate, it is an important source because it comes directly from those who have left or are leaving, and gives you the reasons for their departures.
  • Analyze the relationship between low job satisfaction and intention to leave among key employee groups in your agency’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government data, which is based on the government’s extensive survey of federal employees. Conduct employee focus groups to gain additional insight into the drivers and identify potential solutions.
  • Consider how external factors may be impacting employees’ decisions to leave.

But don’t stop there!

The good news is that with all this information, agencies can begin to gain insights into the reasons for attrition among key employee groups, and develop or refine retention strategies.

What is your agency doing to understand who’s leaving and why? And, what is your agency doing to address attrition challenges? Please share your ideas below, or email me at [email protected].

Tim McManus is Vice-President for Education and Outreach at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.