WASHINGTON – More than half of the federal workforce could retire in the next five years, including over 70 percent of senior management, and few college graduates are lining up to replace them, a group of lawmakers announced Thursday.
In an effort to stem that brain drain on the civil service, the bipartisan group of House members introduced a bill that would offer loan forgiveness to college graduates who go to work for the government.
“A serious effort must be made to attract talented new persons and maintain a quality civil service,” said Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda. “Student loan forgiveness is a great way to start, and I hope we can get the legislation passed this year.”
Morella and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, are among seven co-sponsors of GOFEDS — the Generating Opportunity by Forgiving Educational Debt for Service Act. The bill aims to help close the high loan/low salary dilemma many graduates face by providing up to $40,000 in college debt relief to new civil servants.
“At a time when the federal government desperately needs an infusion of new talent and the ability to retain good workers, mounting student debt burdens are turning too many away from government service,” said Rep. Dan Burton, R- Ind., lead sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform.
Under the proposal, agencies would be authorized to pay $6,000 of a loan per year, up to $40,000 per individual. In exchange, employees would have to commit to staying in the job for at least three years.
The continuing rise in college tuition has caused more and more graduates to finish school thousands of dollars in debt.
The typical college debt burden is estimated to be between $14,000 and $16,000 for undergraduates and over $20,000 for graduate students, according to the Partnership for Public Service, non-partisan nonprofit group backing the bill. It said the percentage of undergraduate students with education loans ballooned from 38 percent in 1993 to 60 percent in 2000.
A recent survey by the partnership found that only 16 percent of college graduates expressed significant interest in working for the government. While three-quarters of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government graduates went to work for the government in 1980, only one-third chooses to enter public service today.
Hopefully, loan forgiveness will entice more graduates committed to public service to join the federal workforce, said partnership president Max Stier.
“This is inexpensive, commonsense legislation that could go a long way toward heading off the dire challenges facing the federal workforce,” Stier said.
Government agencies now have the authority to offer loan-forgiveness, but it is rarely used as a recruitment tool. The GOFEDS Act hopes to make loan forgiveness an even more attractive incentive by making the reimbursements tax- free.
Not everyone thinks the proposal — which Morella described as a “homeland security bill” — is such a good idea.
“The federal government is not the underpaid and poorly fringe-benefited organization it was years ago,” said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. “There are a number of generous benefits the government offers that ought to be sufficient to hire young people.”
Sepp said there may be other reasons keeping graduates away from government service.
“The federal government is perceived as an entity that often stifles creativity and innovation, which is not something young people do not want to be a part of,” he said.
But the American Federation of Government Employees supports the bill.
“Any effort to stem the human capital crisis in the federal workforce is worth it,” said Magda Lynn Seymour, a spokeswoman for the largest federal employees union.