The U.S. government could soon be facing a shortage of workers.
Some 30% of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire in the next three years, according to a Government Accountability Office report. That means the government could be hit by a wave of retirements at a time when it is already dealing with inadequate staffing, because large numbers of employees are on furlough and hiring freezes are in place to save money and dramatically shrink the federal budget deficit.
It could lead to disruptions in some key areas. Some 46% of air traffic controllers can retire in the next three years, creating a challenge for the government to replace them with similarly experienced workers. It's a worry, especially at a time when the public has fresh memories of long delays at the nation's airports when the sequester kept controllers at home on furlough.
Also, more than a third of all federal veterinarians are eligible to retire. An impending national veterinarian shortage is already fueling fears that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will not be able to easily tamp the spread of a severe disease outbreak in animals, according to several federal reports.
Congressional watchdogs have been warning for years about this "tsunami" of baby boomers hitting retirement age at federal agencies. So far, it hasn't happened because more workers hung on to their jobs far longer than expected, in part due to the recession.
That may be changing this year. In the first four months of 2013, some 60,000 employees filed for federal retirement benefits, a 43% increase from last year, according to the Office of Personnel Management. A major part of the spike comes from postal workers taking early retirement buyouts, OPM says.
But union groups and employee advocates say the uptick in retirements is being fueled by the $85 billion in spending cuts, along with its furloughs, pay freezes, slashed overtime and increased work load from the lack of new hires.
"We're seeing this massive brain drain as thousands of workers leave the federal workforce, and it's leading to a huge loss of knowledge and expertise," said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "A lot of these jobs are not being filled once they're vacated."
It's already leading to questionable outcomes. In the past two years, the beleaguered Internal Revenue Service has lost 10,000 employees to retirement and attrition. Some have suggested that the lack of senior level employees may have played a role in the current scandal plaguing that agency.
More than a third of IRS employees will soon be eligible to retire, which could also lead to longer waits for things like taxpayer refunds and audits.
Federal employees can retire at the age of 62 if they have worked five years, or even younger with 20 years of service. The average federal worker is 47 years old with about 14 years on the job, compared to the median age of 42 for all American workers, according to federal data.
Over at the USDA, the labor crunch poses a risk to the nation's food supply as early as this year, according to Michael Gilsdorf, executive vice president for the National Association of Federal Veterinarians.
At least three USDA agencies are struggling to fill positions left by outgoing vets since federal budget cuts took hold, Gilsdorf said. That has shrunk the number of "deployable" veterinarians, who can respond to an animal disease outbreak from 1,000 vets last year, to about 250 now.
A federal advisory panel has warned there aren't enough federal veterinarians to contain a massive multi-state outbreak of foot and mouth disease, a highly contagious animal disease which strikes cows, goats and pigs.
"Our capacity to respond to a disease outbreak has hit a critical stage," said Gilsdorf, who runs the panel tasked with helping craft the plan to recruit thousands of private and public sector veterinarians to fill in gaps if disease hits the nation's food supply.
The USDA responded by saying it has recruited 955 veterinarians and 3,100 animal health technicians to join a volunteer group of emergency responders called the "National Animal Health Emergency Response Corps." The agency's has a special program that trains vets, including those at nonprofits and in private practice on how to respond to a national emergency.
A USDA spokesperson said the agency prioritizes "working with staff and accredited veterinarians to ensure that we can respond quickly and in a manner that is highly protective of our animal agriculture resources."
For some, however, a shrinking federal workforce is not something to worry about. In fact, it is a good thing -- it's a key part of Republican budget chief Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to shrink deficits. This year, Ryan proposed cutting the 2.1 million workforce by 10% through a two-year hiring freeze.
An OPM official said it's prepared for the wave of retirements by "constantly evaluating workforce preparedness programs."
While sequester has been an "added challenge," the official stressed "the decision to retire is a very personal one, as each person looks at their individual situation and decides what is best for them."