GAO: Federal Agencies Lag in Retaining Veteran Employees

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Between fiscal 2014 and 2018, nearly 7% of veterans left federal service, compared with only 5% of non-veterans, the watchdog agency found.

The Government Accountability Office last week reported that although agencies in recent years have improved in their efforts to hire veterans, they have struggled to retain those employees at the same rate as non-veteran workers.

Since a 2009 executive order aimed at boosting veteran hiring in the federal government, agencies have boosted the ratio of veterans in the workforce from 26% to 32% in 2017. But in a GAO report released last week, the watchdog said that in recent years, veterans have been leaving the federal workforce at higher rates their non-veteran counterparts.

Between fiscal 2014 and 2018, an average of 6.7% of veterans left federal service, compared to only 5.0% of similar nonveterans. That dynamic carried across all methods of separation: 3.6% of veterans retired, compared with 3% of nonveterans; 2.3% of veterans resigned compared to 1.5% of nonveterans; and 0.8% of veterans were fired compared to 0.6% of nonveterans.

“After controlling for key demographic and employment factors, we estimated that across all types of attrition, on average, veterans left federal service at 1.2 to 1.6 times the rate of similar nonveterans from fiscal years 2014 through 2018,” GAO wrote.

The disparity in separations is worse when looking at federal workers who were hired and left within the five-year window examined by GAO.

“We found that newly-hired veterans resigned within their first five years of service at 1.7 times the rate of similar nonveterans,” the report stated. “On average, we estimated that 18.7% of veterans resigned within the first five years of federal service, compared to 11.1% of similar newly hired non-veterans—a 7.6 percentage point difference.”

Similarly, while 4.3% percent of veterans were fired within their first five years of service, only 3% of similar newly hired nonveterans were fired, GAO reported.

The key to improving retention efforts to reduce the gap between veterans and nonveterans leaving government could be in tools already available to agencies, namely the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the Office of Personnel Management’s Enterprise Human Resources Integration data.

GAO analyzed veteran and nonveteran responses to questions on the annual viewpoint survey and found that veterans answered slightly less positively to several questions that are considered key drivers of employee retention.

“The slightly lower scores among veterans for these key drivers of retention may help explain why veterans are leaving federal service at higher rates,” GAO wrote. “If an agency could improve veterans’ satisfaction with the meaningfulness of their work, fewer veterans may leave federal service. Additionally, most veterans and nonveterans reported not being satisfied with opportunities for advancement, indicating this area may be a good opportunity for agencies to improve retention for all employees.”

The report suggested that agencies could improve on retention by using a combination of FEVS data with OPM’s Enterprise Human Resources data, provided that OPM provides it to agencies in a different format.

“To protect respondents’ privacy and prevent the possibility of an employee being identified, OPM does not provide agencies individual responses (i.e. record-level data) to the OPM FEVS,” GAO wrote. “Individual-level data are needed to conduct regression analysis, but the executive branch agencies that rely on the OPM FEVS for insights into their employees’ attitudes about their workplace are not able to perform the regression analyses needed to identify drivers of retention.”

GAO recommended that OPM use data from the annual viewpoint survey to analyze the key drivers of retention for veterans and identify strategies to improve agencies’ efforts to keep employees. In its response, OPM said that it concurred with the “spirit of the recommendation,” but that it is prohibited from providing individual-level data due to the Privacy Act.

“Our recommendation does not ask or require OPM to forgo its obligations under the Privacy Act,” GAO wrote. “As we state in the report, OPM previously used FEVS data to create an employee engagement index and our recommendation is intended to have OPM replicate that experience by developing key drivers to address challenges with retaining veteran employees.”