I am nearly 55 years old. My career with the USDA-NRCS enters its fifth year as of late July 2007. At my age, many of my colleagues in the NRCS came through the federal system three decades ago and now have 30 years done. Many of them are near or at retirement. In many federal agencies, managers are thinking about the retirement of those in the federal system with 30 years of experience. Our managers do here in Michigan. On our ecological sciences staff, nearly two-thirds of our group of 15 is eligible for retirement. In fact, we have one resource conservationist with more than 43 years of federal service. That’s a long career.
Working as a public servant in the federal civil service environment can be rewarding and offer some degree of job stability. And we can move about in the federal system – to another state for instance. The civil service system pay schedule is sufficient that we can retain good people and have some degree of continuity by having a low turnover rate for scientists, engineers, analysts and program managers.
The challenge of retirements include the loss of a talented and productive employee. Often a manager will hold a position vacant so the budget folks can gain some headway at reducing the personnel budget. Academia uses this step as well. I cannot remember the last time we had an overlap of a technical position. The overlap, that is, of the new employee working side-by-side with the soon-to-be-retired employee. The point is obvious: continuity and apprenticeship. How often do we gain knowledge by sitting with someone who has been in the field for 30 years? Or riding with him or her as they work with landowners, farmers and producers?
As trainers with the USDA, we schedule both a classroom and field exercise so the new soil conservationists can work side-by-side with the seasoned employee. I have often found the best relationships are based on combining an employee at the front end of his or her career with an employee at the end of his or hers. Each brings a different skill set to the relationship; together they find some common ground at meeting a customer objective.
In many discussions with employees my age, I find they are worried that when they retire the brain drain of the skill set they built into their position during a 30-year career will degrade the agency. There are many managers at the highest levels of USDA thinking about this very concern. In fact, a five-year technology strategy has been developed that helps our agency answer these concerns.
Yet I am not quite ready to be alarmed by the brain drain concern. The younger folks in our agency, those in their 20s for instance, bring a remarkable set of skills to their careers. Yes, most of them have no farming experience. And I have often stated that my career over the years in academia and federal service was based fundamentally upon growing up and owning a farm. Yes, our non-farm employees lack what I consider an essential skill component – that of evaluating a farm using a system or holistic point of view. I am often challenging our land grant universities to develop agricultural students with a systems education rather than a series of individual reductionistic courses.
Our clients demand federal employees understand the systems approach because that is how farms are managed. For example, the agronomist must talk with the feed ration developer; he must talk with the engineer designing a waste storage structure, and all must talk to the banker or loan officer, thereby meeting the goals and expectations of the landowner. We have too many sad stories where these discussions did not happen and the landowner is stuck with something that may not work and might not make good economic sense.
So what is the point?
For those of us with a wide range of experiences and skills based on academic, field and multiple tasks, we owe something to those at the early stages of their careers. The twentysomethings within a few years out of college. We ought to be mentoring these folks. We ought to be encouraging them to have the kind of attitude that will have them in the learning mode their entire life. I often state that to be human is to know that the more we know, the more we do not know.
As I spend a lot of time working with our staff, most of whom are younger than me and in the training mode, I find the role of mentoring especially rewarding. A group of wise men and women once mentored me, and I still like to think I can sit at their feet and learn.
I have often made the case to folks in our agency, who are in their mid-50s like me, that they have an obligation to transfer what they know to the younger staff. Such transfer may not be in the formal sense, although some of it can be. But taking that extra bit of time and sharing conversation with a younger employee is invaluable.
Yesterday at our state office here in East Lansing, a group of our staff attended a day-long training session offered by our state biologist. How rewarding, to me anyway, that several soil conservationists visited me in my little cubicle and asked questions about something they were working on. I am not much of a lunch-eater, but one of our district conservationists asked me to go with her for lunch. I did, and in the course of a turkey sandwich and ice tea, we encouraged each other to grow as employees, learn all that we can and become better employees.
For nearly an hour we talked about our work, our frustrations and our joys at public service. This is mentoring, an investment of time in someone else. For my colleagues nearing retirement, such an investment of time before they leave is wise and extraordinarily important. PD