Phased retirement: A win-win solution

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been in the headlines a lot lately, and there’s been much debate about how to deliver better care to our veterans. We are working hard to regain the trust veterans have placed in us to deliver their health care. An important step to retain the most experienced, high-performing workers who deliver the public services that we all rely on from federal agencies, including the VA, finally became a reality this week – phased retirement.

For more than 30 years, I have proudly served our veterans at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, MS. Fulfilling our job duties with experienced staff is essential to delivering timely care.  I’ve seen firsthand the importance of retaining experienced staff in the chemistry lab at our hospital, where older workers bring expertise to the job but who, like me, are nearing retirement age.

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Every day, we process more than 1,000 tests and deliver critical lab results to doctors and staff from across the hospital and Community Based Outpatient Clinics.  We run urinalysis, chemistry panels and various specialty testing such as thyroid studies and therapeutic drug monitoring – all tests crucial to treating our veterans effectively.

Our lab is a high-stress environment that requires us to rotate and work across seven stations. If we are short-staffed, many of us must double up and share coverage of the extra workstation.  All of this must be juggled while the phone rings nonstop with requests for additional testing.

At federal agencies across the country, the loss of institutional knowledge is on the rise. According to the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE), since January 2013, our country has lost 10,000 years' worth of federal worker experience every single day. The number of retirement-eligible employees is expected to double over the next three years.  

This loss of expertise may continue unseen by the public (and sometimes even upper management) until staffing shortages reach a critical mass and essential services on which Americans depend start to diminish.

Two years ago, Congress recognized the need to retain experienced federal workers by passing a law allowing them to remain in their jobs on a part-time basis after reaching retirement age. This “phased retirement” option would give federal workers flexibility in their schedules while training their successors. In fact, mentoring would be a requirement for phased retirees.  

After two years of waiting, phased retirement will soon be an option for federal workers. This week, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced regulations to implement phased retirement at federal agencies.

You hear a lot about the “graying work force,” but it’s the gray matter underneath that contains a wealth of knowledge that we should want to retain to train the next generation of workers. Sixty percent of federal workers have at least 15 years of experience. In my lab at the VA, my 32 years on the job mean I know every assignment, chapter and verse. Many of my colleagues joke that I can answer a question before they even have time to get out the manual.

Retaining institutional knowledge is not only good for the federal government and its workers, but also for the American people who rely on the services we provide. Federal workers such as firefighters and meteorologists agree there are some things that must be learned through on-the-job experience. Phased retirement, with its mentoring requirement, is one way to ensure that those critical skills are not lost by shortening the learning curve for younger staff.

Phased retirement also benefits taxpayers. When positions are left unfilled due to retirements, taxpayers lose money. According to the Congressional Budget Office, phased retirement would decrease direct spending by $427 million and increase revenues by $24 million – a savings to taxpayers of more than $450 million.

And for workers like me, phased retirement is a chance to continue doing what I love while having more flexibility to tend to health needs or to pursue other interests. While I am not ready to retire full-time, I welcome the opportunity to slow down a bit.

Staying on the job means I can continue to serve our veterans and mentor my colleagues (finally putting that master’s degree in education to good use), while also keeping up with college tuition payments for my daughter.

I may never have served in the military, but I know what it means to have the privilege of serving my country. My career in public service has been a labor of love. Phased retirement will allow me to pass the torch to the next generation.

Rigdon has worked for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi, since 1982.