Well-paid, experienced public servants, once the bane of taxpayers and budget-balancing politicians, could soon become a commodity as prized and scarce as oil. Up to one-quarter of all civil servants will be eligible to retire with a full pension over the next five years, and the prospect of a mass exodus of seasoned functionaries has top bureaucrats fretting.
According to a Statistics Canada analysis released earlier this month, Canada’s civil servants are slightly older and tend to retire earlier than the rest of the labour force. The average retirement age for government employees is 58 years old, compared with 61 for everyone else; a trend no doubt facilitated by generous public sector pension plans. For the management component, the outlook is even starker. About half of all executives will be able to grab their pensions and run over the next four years.
It all adds up to a challenge of bureaucratic proportions according to David Zussman, Jarislowsky chair in public sector management at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Zussman implemented the Chrétien government’s program review that saw 55,000 civil service positions slashed in the 1990s.
DON’T GO! Ottawa faces an exodus of civil servants.
Now he’s sounding the alarm over the need to suddenly ramp up hiring. It’s a turnaround no one expected. “Back then, I never thought it would happen,” he says of the looming shortage of civil servants. Making matters more difficult is the fact that Ottawa is already on a hiring binge trying to meet new needs in the areas of intelligence and border security. Now it must replace thousands of retirees too.
It’s not that Ottawa has trouble recruiting staff—it received one million applications last year—but the new hires will be considerably younger and less experienced that those they are replacing. This could have a big impact on the effectiveness of federal government policies in the years to come. “A huge amount of intellectual capital will be walking out the door in the next few years,” says Zussman. “The question is whether we can bring these new people up to speed in time.”
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