Will 2012 be the year agencies focus on succession planning?

Tuesday - 1/3/2012, 8:39pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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While it may not be a tsunami yet, there's good reason to believe more federal workers retired at the end of 2011 than in recent years. With the increase in retirements, pressure is growing on agencies to draft and implement succession plans.

"This is going to be a major challenge," Veterans Affairs Department Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepulveda told Federal News Radio. Half of his agency's senior executives are eligible to retire.

"How do we fill positions at a time when many of those positions have been frozen? How do we deal with the loss of institutional memory? How do we deal with the loss of mentoring opportunities that these folks afford you in mentoring the next generation of federal employees?" he asked.

A retirement wave that usually begins in January each year started a few months early, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Yet a June 2011 poll by the Society for Human Resource management found less than a quarter of organizations nationwide have formal succession plans. Ironically, many agencies lack plans for their human resources departments in particular, according to a report by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton published in the same month.

The VA is focusing on workforce training and development, Sepulveda said.

Other agencies have created systems for identifying the potential weak spots in their future workforces and are building strategies for getting those areas up to snuff.

"We score individuals on a one-to-five scale, five being the greatest risk," said Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of Human Capital and Diversity Pam Malam at a human resources conference late last year.

Someone with that rating may be eligible for retirement, have critical knowledge and be performing critical work, she said. Frontline staff in rural areas and on Indian reservations is in short supply.

"When they score high enough, that's where you focus your actions on how you're going to mitigate that risk," she said.

Every manager at the agency is supposed to assess their employees using this method.

"It's a bottom-up approach," she said. "We try to do it at the lowest practical level, where the manager knows their individuals, workforce, mission and budget, and then we roll it up from there."

The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton report recommends looking at the pool of candidates who would take the place of retirees, rather than on specific individuals.

The Agriculture Department has centralized its staff training resources into a virtual university, where employees can see which courses or job openings might fit with their long-term development plans.

It also has revived a development program for Senior Executive Service candidates.

"We are going to see a significant loss of SESers this year," on top of 350 current SES vacancies at the agency, said Chief Human Capital Officer William Milton.

The program launched in May after human resources staff reached out to unions and affinity groups, he said. Staff advertised widely and attracted 600 applicants. There are 70 candidates in the 18-month training program, up from an original estimate of 30.

"All SES vacancies today, before they can look at a competitive individual, first must satisfy the office of the secretary that we do not have a qualified candidate from that program who can take that position," he said.

But Milton said he did not expect to fill all of the open SES positions because the agency is trying to find efficiencies by centralizing its workforce.

"We don't have a need for 350 senior executives," he said.

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