When Andy Robinson describes the workforce crisis his department faces in the not so distant future, he has to look no further than himself to see whats going to happen. Robinson, who is director of information services for the Texas Department of Insurance, is an aging baby boomer. In five years, he and about 25 percent of the departments information technology workforce will be eligible for retirement.

"A lot of us boomers are aging out," he remarked. But when it comes to finding a solution to the problem, state executives like Robinson have little to fall back on. "I have to say that succession planning within the state is inadequate," he confided. For a heavily decentralized state government like Texas, where each of the states 250-plus agencies have their own human resource department, that can spell trouble. But the Lone Star state is hardly alone. Across the country, state and local governments face a major crisis as senior staff reach retirement age in record-breaking numbers.

In 1999, the Rockefeller Institute of Government took a look at the aging state and local government workforce. What it discovered would have alarmed any human resource executive. According to the study, 42 percent of the 15.7 million state and local government workers are between 45 and 64 years old. For some states the figures are worse. In Washington, 50 percent of state workers are 45 or older. At the executive level, more than 50 percent are eligible to retire in just five years, as are 30 percent of the states mid-level managers.

In Iowa, the state faces the same gloomy numbers. Approximately 33 percent of Iowas 21,000 employees will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years. Right now, 70 percent of employees at the supervisor level are over 45 years old, according to Mollie Anderson, director of personnel for the state. When Anderson took over as director two-and-a-half years ago, information on just how many people would be eligible for retirement didnt exist. "People knew anecdotally that it was happening, but it takes data to realize the scope of the problem," she said.

The data has come in the form of a retirement calculator developed by the Personnel Department that allows agencies to project over the next 10 years how many retirements will occur in each agency and in what job classification. Not surprisingly, wake-up calls went out to many agencies when they used the calculator, particularly agencies with older staff, such as the departments of agriculture and labor. Interestingly, the states IT department found itself in somewhat better shape, since it was a relatively new state agency with a younger workforce.

Upping Compensation

Faced with a shrinking workforce, states have responded in a number of different ways to shore up their labor resources and to hang on to those senior staff and the knowledge they carry. One step that a number of states have taken, especially in the area of IT, is to address the compensation problem. In Texas, where the high-tech industry has been extremely hot, the loss of skilled workers to the likes of Dell and other firms reached crisis proportions. "Our turnover was reaching 35 percent in 1999," said Robinson. "Thats pretty bad for a small division such as ours, which has only 79 workers."

The states legislature responded by reclassifying technology workers and bumping up the pay scale to a level that reduced the difference between the public and private sector enough to halt the loss of workers. Turnover is less than 10 percent today. Aiding the situation is the sudden slowdown in the high-tech sector and the subsequent rise in layoffs. "We have plenty of people apply for jobs here," Robinson quipped. "That wasnt the case last year."

In a further effort to sweeten the pot for all workers, the Texas legislature recently passed a bill that allows state workers who have retired to return to the public-sector workforce

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor