Naturally, union leaders and their allies have characterized these retirement waves as a bad thing, suggesting that we are losing our most experienced and valuable government employees all at once, and warning that we'll have trouble filling those slots (even at a time when the national unemployment rate is 9.2 percent). But is that really true?
Ironically, the whole notion that our most seasoned and experienced workers are valuable comes from the private sector, where workers are not only retained but promoted more commonly based on evaluations of their work, and where firing ineffective workers is relatively easy compared to the public sector. By contrast, most government workers, especially in heavily unionized states, spend their entire lives in a system where they receive pay raises and get promoted almost entirely based on seniority. Many of these workers are never judged by superiors through meaningful evaluations, so we really have no idea who the most valuable among them are.
In New Jersey, teachers represent the biggest category of workers heading for the exits. But even though in many places we still don't evaluate public school teachers and pay them according to their worth, teaching is one area were there's been plenty of research on quality, and that research suggests that losing our most experienced (and expensive) teachers to early retirement is not such a bad thing.
As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Marcus Winters explained in a provocatively titled piece (The Worst System Ever) last February, "research shows that such factors as experience, certification level and the possession of advanced degrees explain less than 5 percent of the variation between one teacher and another. Indeed, most of whatever it is that makes one teacher better than another has nothing to do with longevity." As he explains, experience matters a lot to teachers in their first five years or so in the classroom, but after that, its impact diminishes.
We have very little idea how valuable experience is to other categories of public workers, in large part because we don't study government performance and productivity very extensively here in the United States. We do know how productive private workers are in a host of industries, and we can track their gains in productivity over time. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, do the same for public workers, but every attempt in the U.S. to develop useful measures of government work output has gone nowhere.
One telling statistic, however, is that over the last 20 years, even as the U.S. population has increased by 24 percent, state and local government employment has grown by 28 percent. Since it is the need to deliver more services as the population grows that drives much of state and local hiring, this suggests our government employees aren't growing more productive. It may also suggest we're enlisting government to do more and more over time. Whether we're getting a good return on those extra services with a workforce rarely judged on its merits is up to individual readers (and voters)to determine.