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NSF is bracing for a potential surge in retirements in 2016

Longer commutes to the agency's new headquarters could exacerbate the problem.

NSF is puzzling over how it will cope with the anticipated plunge in its workforce as more than one-third of its permanent staff become eligible to retire and the agency moves to a new location in Northern Virginia two years from now. More than half of NSF permanent employees in some scientific areas will become retirement-eligible in 2016, Judith Sunley, director of human resource management, told the National Science Board on 14 August.

"It keeps me up occasionally," Sunley said. "We don't want to say the sky is falling but we do want to be prepared for the kinds of things we might have to do over the next few years."

Just half of NSF's workforce is permanent; the remainder are "rotators"—scientists, engineers, and educators who take leave from their jobs to work at NSF usually for one to two years—and other temporary staff.

Although the new headquarters under construction in Alexandria is only a few miles from NSF's current location, employees who now live near the agency will have to endure a significantly longer commute due to the configuration of the Washington, DC, area's subway system. Sunley said she fears that some of those eligible to retire will view the move as an added incentive to leave the agency for good. The goal is to retain 75% of the permanent workforce after the move, a number she called "a rough, seat-of-the-pants estimate" for having 50% of all current agency staff, including rotators and temps, move to the new location.

At the same time, NSF could use the opportunity presented by the departures to help reshape its permanent staff to address shifting scientific priorities. "NSF doesn't just do workforce planning for the next year. We look out 3–5 years in terms of our expectations for the staff we're going to need," she noted.

Possible retention tools include greater use of professional development and career advancement programs, higher salaries, and more flexible workplace arrangements. NSF will be gathering employee input through surveys, focus groups, and consultations with unions. Newly issued regulations provide eligible employees with some increased retirement flexibility, she noted.

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