WASHINGTON -- The federal workforce is building toward a potential retirement wave, with more than a third of career employees projected to be eligible for collecting their end-of-career benefits by September 2017, compared with just 14 percent at the same time in 2012.
That's according to a new report on trends in federal civilian employment and compensation from Congress's nonpartisan investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office. The analysis also found that federal employment, not including the military, grew by 14 percent between 2004 and 2012, with most of the increase coming in jobs that require additional skill and education.
The GAO concluded that the large numbers of retirement-eligible employees in coming years may be a cause for concern because "their retirement could produce mission-critical skills gaps if left unaddressed."
In 2012, Congress and President Barack Obama took action to address that situation, approving a "phased retirement" program that allows federal employees to work part time after the age of retirement while receiving partial annuities and continuing to pay toward their benefits. Those workers would be required to spend at least 20 percent of their part-time employment on mentoring their replacements.
Federal-worker groups have called for an expansion of the phased retirement program, saying it should apply to older employees who have worked for the government fewer than 20 years.
The GAO report also showed growth in the workforce from 2004 to 2012, with a figure that increased from 1.88 million to 2.13 million.
The GAO found that the government's three largest agencies -- the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security -- accounted for 94 percent of the increase in federal employment during that period.
The Pentagon said that much of its growth resulted from converting positions from military to civilian, in addition to an expansion of its acquisition and cybersecurity workforces, according to the report. VA said that increased demand for medical and health-related services drove its growth, while DHS attributed its numbers to the nation's border security requirements, the analysis said.
Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that federal employment is now moving in the opposite direction, with a decline of 13 percent likely over the next nine years. By December 2013, the government had lost more than 80,000 employees compared with the same time the previous year.
In other findings, the GAO also determined that spending on total compensation for full-time positions across the government grew by an average of 1.2 percent a year between 2004 and 2012, jumping from $106,097 to $116,828 during that time.
In pay alone, spending for each full-time employee increased at an average rate of about 1 percent a year.
Both of those rates would have been higher if Obama had not implemented a pay freeze for federal workers lasting two years starting in 2010. Congress voted to continue the hold through 2013, but that wouldn't have affected the GAO findings because it occurred too late.
Workers are set to receive their first automatic pay raise in more than three years in 2014, with their rates increasing by 1 percent, the result of an executive order that Obama issued two days before Christmas.