Attrition is high among new workers at many government agencies

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 6:51 PM

As soon as Uncle Sam finds good employees, he loses a bunch of them.

Nearly a quarter of new federal government hires leave their jobs within two years, according to a report released Thursday.

“The government is losing too many new hires – the same talent it is working so hard to recruit and bring on board,” says the report, “Beneath the Surface:Understanding Attrition at Your Agency and Why it Matters.”

Overall, 24.2 percent of new hires left government from fiscal year 2006 to 2008, but at some agencies the situation was worse. More than a third of the new hires at the Departments of Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security weren’t there two years later, according to the report prepared by the consulting firm of Booz, Allen, Hamilton and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.

Commerce attributed its attrition rate to the turnover of part-time temporary workers in its field offices.

Treasury said approximately 80 percent of employees who stay at the department for three years, stay at Treasury for their full career.

A disturbing 72 percent of Homeland Security career executives left that agency between 2003 and 2007, Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service’s president and chief executive, told federal officials gathered for release of the report.

“No one was paying attention to it,” Stier said.

It’s scary to think that an agency so important to the security of the United States was being run by so many people with so little experience. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that on the Partnership’s 2010 list of Best Places to Work, Homeland Security ranks 28th out of 32 agencies in its category.

Fortunately, other critical agencies do better.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was the best agency at keeping new talent, with a recently hired attrition rate of 10.8 percent. NRC also ranks first in its category on the Best Places list. The State Department, the Office of Management and Budget, the Air Force and NASA also do relatively well, with rates ranging from 14.5 percent to 15.7 percent. The report did not have private sector newly-hired attrition rates for comparison.

Generally speaking, Sam does a good job of keeping his people on the job. Job security is a well-known attraction of government employment. The report says overall federal attrition rates were 7.6 in fiscal 2008 and 5.85 in 2009, compared with a private-sector rate of 9.2 in 2008.

The generally low government rates can mask deeper problems, according to Ron Sanders, a senior executive adviser with Booz Allen. Agencies should not “be lulled to sleep by an historically low attrition number,” he said.

Losing newly hired workers may point to more serious issues at the agency.

“For example, while attrition of recently hired employees means a loss of the considerable investment expended to bring them on board – literally money down the drain – it also can indicate weaknesses in the agency’s recruiting, hiring and on-boarding processes, as well as shortcomings in supervision,” the report says.

Following the release of the report, the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen conducted a workshop for government officials designed to help them understand and prepare for attrition at their agencies.

One part of that is examining attrition related to positions that are critical to the mission of an agency. Government employees in transportation safety, including air traffic controllers and highway, railroad and aviation safety specialists, have an attrition rate of nearly 30 percent, for example. Federal nurses, Border Patrol agents, mine safety workers and those in several other critical occupations have attrition rates far above the government average.

The attrition rate for transportation security officers, the screeners at airports, “has always been high,” David Tumblin, a workforce analyst in the Transportation Security Administration, told the briefing.

The reasons are understandable. Screeners are on their feet all day, people get upset with them, and they don’t make a lot of money. Transportation security officers also are the focal point of attempts to secure collective bargaining rights by the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union.

Through “a sustained effort,” Tumblin said the attrition rate for TSA is now in the 8 percent range.

As the report notes, attrition can be good or bad.

People leaving makes space for new blood, new energy and new talent. Attrition allows workers who perform poorly to be replaced and provides promoti on opportunities for the young and ambitious.

But too much attrition can also mean the loss of experienced workers with institutional knowledge and may indicate employee dissatisfaction.

If officials focus only on an agency’s general attrition rate, Sanders said, “it’s very misleading.”

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