Attrition is an ongoing concern for our federal government. While some attrition is natural and can help infuse the federal workforce with new talent and ideas, turnover can also cause a loss of institutional knowledge and cost hiring managers both time and resources. Therefore, federal leaders need to monitor attrition and be proactive when possible to ensure that agencies quickly meet their workforce needs and best serve the public.
*We analyzed the fiscal 2021 attrition rate, a period that ran from October 2020 through September 2021, for various groups and categories. This critical period saw a presidential transition and continued uncertainty in the workplace due to the coronavirus pandemic. We focused on voluntary attrition—the number of quits and retirements in a fiscal year divided by the number of employees at the end of the previous fiscal year.
Despite claims to the contrary, we found that government is not in crisis. The attrition rate in fiscal 2021 was only slightly higher than the previous year and consistent with pre-pandemic rates. Moreover, the federal government continued to grow in fiscal 2021, demonstrating the stability of the career workforce.
That said, certain critical elements of the federal workforce are in a state of stress. In fiscal 2021, the attrition rate for these elements or groups was higher than the government-wide average. These changes may be of interest to the Biden administration as it seeks to support and strengthen the federal civil service.
*All data and analysis below rely on FedScope, the government’s online workforce data tool. Percentages throughout may not appear to add up to 100 due to rounding.
Government-wide attrition trends
The government-wide attrition rate in fiscal 2021 was 6.1%, a higher figure than the 5.5% rate in fiscal 2020 but consistent with the 6.1% rate in fiscal 2019 and the 6.0% rate in fiscal 2018. In fiscal 2021, retirements constituted around 53.0% of the overall government-wide attrition, a percentage consistent with previous years. Because retirements are easier to predict than quits, agencies should be proactive about replacing employees who plan to retire. In addition, the attrition rate across different quarters of fiscal 2021 was consistent—even though many worried that the so-called “Great Resignation,” a wave of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs, would occur in government at the start of the fourth quarter.
Attrition increased only slightly during this quarter—1.8%—compared with 1.5% in quarter one and quarter three, and 1.3% in quarter two. Future data is needed to see if this slight increase has continued in fiscal 2022 and whether it will become a broader federal workforce trend.
Agency attrition trends
Attrition rates in fiscal 2021 varied across many agencies in government, all of which faced uniquely demanding circumstances as they responded to and operated during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs had the highest attrition rate at 7.1%, a full percentage point greater than the government-wide average and an increase from the agency’s 6.4% attrition rate in fiscal 2020.
This high attrition rate may be explained by the fact that VA employees served on the front lines during the pandemic, and many are burnt out. At a recent breakfast celebrating the agency’s rise in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, a comprehensive analysis of employee engagement and satisfaction in the federal government produced annually with Boston Consulting Group, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said, “It’s no exaggeration to say that VA employees—and all federal employees—have been the backbone of this country during the pandemic.”
In contrast, the General Services Administration had the lowest attrition rate at 4.2%, almost two percentage points lower than the government-wide average and a slight drop from its 4.4% attrition rate in fiscal 2020.
The attrition rate in fiscal 2021 was 5.0% for both the cyber and STEM workforce—a figure lower than the government-wide average of 6.1%. This finding shows that while government—like many in the private sector—struggles to recruit talent for cyber and technology roles, agencies are successfully retaining this talent to build a technically skilled workforce that will help our government innovate and develop more modernized programs, services and operations.
Age may factor into this low attrition rate. While the cyber talent in the general workforce skews younger, most of the cyber talent in government is over 40 years old. This age group has low attrition rates across different demographic groups.
This low attrition rate is also notable given how transferable cyber skills are across sectors and considering the ongoing shortage of cyber talent across the labor force. At the recent Cyber Workforce Summit, the White House announced several initiatives to increase cyber talent and offset this shortage.
In contrast to the cyber and STEM workforces, the attrition rate for health occupations in fiscal 2021 was 7.1%, a percentage higher than the government-wide average. This mirrors trends in the private sector, where low morale and pandemic-related stress have caused an estimated 20% of health care workers to leave their positions in just over two years. This decrease is especially concerning given that the pandemic is ongoing and continues to require a robust, whole-of-government response.
Attrition by sex
The attrition rate for females in fiscal 2021 was 6.4%, which is higher than both the male attrition rate of 6.0% and the government-wide rate of 6.1%. This trend is similar to fiscal 2020, when the female attrition rate was also higher than both the male rate and the government-wide average. These figures also match overall labor market trends. Since the start of the pandemic, over 1.1 million women have lost their jobs and still remain less likely than men to have regained their jobs.
To remedy this situation, agencies should emphasize work-life balance. Our recent Best Places to Work rankings highlight the importance of work-life balance to employee engagement and satisfaction. This is especially true for women, who often must balance work obligations and childcare or home responsibilities.
Attrition by race
The attrition rate for people of color in fiscal 2021 was 5.9%, which was lower than both the 6.3% attrition rate for white employees and the government-wide rate of 6.1%. In addition, the attrition rate was 9.7% for those who have not identified their racial or ethnic background for official record-keeping purposes—a group defined as “unspecified” by the Office of Personnel Management.
This trend is similar to previous years, during which white employees had a slightly higher attrition rate than other racial or ethnic groups. Some of these groups face more barriers in the labor market and have experienced more economic challenges during the pandemic, so they may value the stability of government work more than their white counterparts and be less inclined to leave their positions.
Attrition by GS level
In fiscal 2021, the attrition rate was 14.5% for GS 1-4 employees and 8.7% for GS 5-7 employees, both above the 6.1% government-wide average. This rate is concerning because employees from these two groups who left government service tended to quit their jobs and most entry-level government employees fall within the GS 5-7 group. This attrition rate also represents a marked increase from fiscal 2020, when the rate for GS 1-4 and GS 5-7 groups were 12.6% and 7.3%, respectively.
On the other hand, the fiscal 2021 attrition rates for GS 10-12 employees and GS 13-15 employees were 5.1% and 5.0%, respectively. These rates, while slightly higher than last year’s rate of 4.6% for both groups, consistently fall below government-wide averages. In addition, the attrition rate was comprised mostly of retirements for both GS 10-12 and GS 13-15 employees.
Finally, the attrition rate for career members of the Senior Executive Service was 9.2%, mostly comprised of retirements. It is important that our government plans for these retirements to avoid the loss of institutional knowledge that may occur without proper succession planning. One important note is that these numbers exclude about 30.0% of the federal workforce that is neither on the GS pay plan nor in an equivalent position that can be mapped on to the GS pay scale.
Attrition by age
The fiscal 2021 attrition rate for employees under 30 was 8.5%, significantly higher than the government-wide average of 6.1%. While it is possible that these employees left government to pursue educational opportunities and will one day return, it is important that federal leaders pay particular attention to this age group. Government already struggles to attract and hire young talent, so it must ensure that young people are not only getting hired into the federal workforce but also staying in it. On a positive note, our Best Places to Work rankings showed that employees under age 30 are some of the most engaged and satisfied workers across government.
Of all age groups, employees who are 40-49 years old—the second largest age bracket in government—had the lowest attrition rate in fiscal 2021 at 2.8%. Federal employees over age 60 had the highest attrition rate of all groups at 16.7%, mostly due to retirements. Since retirements are easier to anticipate than quits, federal leaders should proactively plan for workers in this age group to leave government.
Attrition by length of service
The fiscal 2021 attrition rate for employees with under five years of service was 7.1% and mostly comprised of quits. For those with five to nine years of service and 10-19 years of service, the attrition rates were 4.1% and 3.6%, respectively. Both fell below the 6.1% government-wide average.
For those with 20-29 years of service and over 30 years of service, the attrition rates climbed again, reflecting a substantial number of retirements. These patterns closely mirror the attrition rate trends by age: Those with 10-19 years of service had the lowest attrition rate, while those with very few or many years of service had much higher rates.
Our 2021 Best Places to Work rankings found that despite general dissatisfaction with their pay, employees with less than one year of service were among the most engaged and satisfied workers in government. This finding suggests that those with under five years of service may leave their positions for other reasons besides overall job frustration.
However, our Best Places to Work scores also showed a sharp decrease in employee engagement and satisfaction starting in workers’ fourth year of federal service, suggesting that a weak employee experience may still play a role in attrition for those who have served less than five years.
Attrition by education level
The fiscal 2021 attrition rate had an inverse relationship to education level—the higher the education level, the lower the attrition rate. For example, the attrition rate was highest for those without a high school degree at 8.2% and lowest for those with a doctorate at 5.2%.
According to our 2021 report, hiring managers may view those without a four-year degree as less competent or unqualified. However, recruiting and training this group would help create a talent base to replace the substantial portion of the federal workforce that is eligible to retire in the coming years.
The fiscal 2021 attrition rate varies by state—from as low as 4.7% in Maryland to as high as 9.3% in South Dakota. The overall attrition rate of Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia was 5.2%, lower than the government-wide average. On the other hand, the attrition rate outside this region was 6.4%.
Around 80% of the federal workforce works outside of the Washington, D.C., area, so this higher attrition rate is notable. California, for example, has about 8.0% of the federal workforce and a 7.1% attrition rate—a full percentage point higher than the government-wide average and almost two percentage points higher than the rate inside the Washington, D.C., area. Federal agencies located outside this region should therefore work to bring down their attrition rates.