Stateline Story

Aging to Take Toll on State Workforces

  • April 01, 2005
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Looking for a job? Try state government.

More than 25 states will experience huge employee turnover in the next decade and beyond as aging public servants retire, a recent report found. The hardest hit will be the state of Washington, but Maine, Tennessee, Michigan and Pennsylvania are right behind.

Sixty-four percent of Washington's workforce is eligible to retire between now and 2015. The figure for Maine is 59 percent, for Tennessee 58 percent, for Michigan 56 percent and for Pennsylvania 54 percent.

Aging state workforce chartOther states facing a significant near-future exodus of retirees include Nebraska, Delaware and Rhode Island, forming what one study describes as a "personnel tornado on the horizon."

In general, state governments in New England and the mid-Atlantic will be most severely affected by the looming retirement wave. Rocky Mountain states will generally feel the least impact.

The aging trend is more pronounced in state governments than in the U.S. private workforce in general. According to the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 43.6 percent of state workforces collectively are comprised of individuals age 45 and older. This will soon force state administrators to cope with job vacancies and a loss of institutional memory, and it will place added stress on state pension systems and health insurance costs.

"In some states, it could be a crisis situation," said Lynchburg (VA) College professor Sally Selden.

Selden was among a number of academics who examined the problem as part of the Government Performance Project, a recent $4.7 million study of state management issues funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. (Pew also funds Stateline.org.) The Albany, N.Y.-based Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government did a similar study in 2002.

Looming retirements could cause acute shortages of state healthcare workers, legal professionals, natural scientists, engineers, educators and managers, the Rockefeller study found.

Some states are already taking steps to address the issue. In Idaho, a state with one of the lowest percentages of retirement-bound workers, agency administrators are grooming future replacements by offering individuals who have been identified as potential leaders 300 hours of training.

Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia are working with Monster.com, an online employment bulletin board, to recruit state workers, especially in the fields of healthcare and engineering. "We have to tell them why it's cool to work in the public sector," Sara Redding Wilson, director of Virginia's Department of Human Resources Management, told Stateline.org.

In the state of Washington, the aging of the workforce could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) wants to cut 1,000 middle managers from the state payroll. Dorothy Gerard, the state's assistant personnel director who is herself retiring in April, said much of the reduction will be accomplished through retirement.