Retirement surge may leave positions open


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They boomed into the workforce, and now they’re booming into retirement.

Baby boomers retiring from the public sector in the next five to 10 years will leave thousands of jobs nationwide that few people are qualified to fill, said Brad Hanson, the city manager of Onawa, a town of roughly 3,000 in western Iowa.

Iowa City will not be immune to the retirement surge.

Iowa City personnel administrator Karen Jennings said many city employees could retire in coming years.

“More than half of our employees will be within retirement age in the next five years,” she said.

The city cannot promote from within right away, either, Jennings said.

Labor-union rules do not allow for someone to be immediately promoted to a position.

However, ranking offices such as the Police and Fire Departments promote based on rank, Jennings said. When ranking officials retire, the people below them will be promoted.

Groups such as the International City/County Management Association are beginning programs to recruit young people to fill the anticipated open positions.

Rob Carty, the director of career services and next generations initiatives for the association, said it uses graduate students to introduce younger students to public administration.

The student chapters of the group attempt to get undergraduates interested in public administration, he said. 

The shortage will extend most to the local level, especially city managers, deputy managers, and department heads.  Carty said many recent public-administration graduates migrate to the federal government or nonprofits.

“People can find a niche very easily,” Carty said.

The retirement tidal wave, identified by the management association in 2003, was predicted to occur over the following decade.  However, the financial recession delayed retirement for many boomers, Carty said.

Many boomers delayed their retirement for pension reasons resulting from the recession. Others put off their retirements in order to avoid a change in leadership during the recession, Carty said.

One method to find successors, Onawa’s Hanson said, is succession planning, which involves identifying and training qualified young adults for the positions opening up through programs tailored and modified specifically to the community.

Hanson said part of the reason there will be a shortage is a lack of awareness of public-administration jobs.

“I go to career days in high schools and career days in college and get the same response,” Hanson said. “‘I did not know there was a career in public management.’”

Internships used to provide graduates opportunities in the field; however, they are less common now.

“A lot of local administrators started their careers as interns, but not a lot of them fund internships,” Carty said.

A lack of funding also limits the ability to promote from within.

Rather than laying people off, many local governments cut out professional development opportunities such as trips to conferences, Carty said.

One way the management association fights this, he said, is through Management Talent Exchange Programs.

The program, according to the association website, involves trading “high potential” employees among departments, counties, or cities to allow them to learn another area of public administration.

In 2005, while serving on the City Council of Federal Heights, Colo., Hanson had the opportunity to hire a city manager.

Federal Heights, a Denver suburb with 11,000 people, would have paid the city manager more than $100,000.

“Thirty years ago,” Hanson said, “we would have had 40 applicants, narrowed them down to 10 to 15, invited eight in for an interview, and have seven show up.”

The council only received 20 applicants in 2005, of which three were invited to interview, and only two showed up, Hanson said.

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