Boomer Brain Drain: Are Employers Capturing What They Know?

The federal government is facing a potential crisis as large numbers of senior employees with expertise that’s not easy to replace are leaving their posts. It’s a problem looming large for almost every employer without solid knowledge management and transfer strategies.

The federal workforce, like so many others, is starting to show its age. Last year, 262,000 federal employees were 60 or older, up from 94,000 in 2000, according to government statistics reported by the Washington Post.

The number of executive branch employees retiring this fiscal year, which ends in September, is on track to be double what it was in 2009. That fact is at the root of concern in many agencies over the potential loss of a significant pool of knowledge and experience—especially as pay and hiring freezes remain in place.

If it’s done correctly and done formally, mentoring creates a win-win and creates a community of trust where some of the less formal knowledge transfer can also happen.

The federal workforce isn’t the only sector facing boomer brain drain: In nearly every industry, baby boomers are expected to hang up their office attire in large numbers in the coming years. The National Association of Workforce Development Professionals (NAWDP), which represents the people who help organizations develop employment training programs, is working to raise the sense of urgency around knowledge transfer from senior-level workers to their younger colleagues.

“These younger professionals have not necessarily been exposed to a lot of the situations that they are going to need to be knowledgeable about in order to lead the system to the next level of performance,” said Bridget Brown, NAWDP’s executive director. “That’s something that we are really starting to take a look at in creating some mentoring programs and leadership programs.”

Rather than focusing on professionals in the C-suite, Brown said, those programs need to be aimed at mid- to senior-level professionals to help them build the expertise and institutional knowledge needed to take over higher-level responsibilities. At the same time, taking care of the basics of knowledge management—maintaining protocol documents, keeping communication channels open, and investing in professional development—is critical.

“The organization itself has to set that standard, [so] that it’s not simply, ‘Let me put these processes in a database and it will live there,'” said Brown. “It’s about taking a look at the workforce and saying, ‘Who’s going to be here in five years? Let me continue to invest in them.’ And we as the nonprofit world need to take a look at that as well. Are we investing in the professional development of our staff? As budgets get tight we’re doing more with less, but what are we giving up?”

One thing organizations should not give up, Brown stressed, is a commitment to running a productive mentoring program.

“If it’s done correctly and done formally, mentoring creates a win-win and creates a community of trust where some of the less formal knowledge transfer can also happen,” she said. “Nobody wants to think that they are leaving their job. Everyone wants to think that they’re indispensible, and if I keep my knowledge to me, then my job is going to be more protected. That just simply isn’t the case these days, and sharing that knowledge ensures the continued success of the organization.”

But the effort isn’t easy, even for professional development pros. Because her organization and its members have been busy doing the work of workforce development, Brown admitted, even they “have slacked off a little bit” in mentoring and planning for younger and mid-level professionals to take over the reins.

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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