The Glass-Half-Full Way to Prep for the State and Local ‘Silver Tsunami’

Michael Grass / Route Fifty


Connecting state and local government leaders

A single retirement or multiple departures of experienced staffers don’t necessarily need to be scary for public-sector organizations.

The phrase “silver tsunami” is something that many state and local government managers have become very familiar with. They may have experienced the impacts first hand in their organization or dread the day they'll lose years of experience and institutional knowledge with a single retirement or multiple departures of important personnel.

The challenge of the past decade is that the Great Recession prompted many state and local government professionals to delay their retirement, which has meant in some cases that there aren’t as many opportunities for rising talent to advance and prepare to fill the shoes of their colleagues when those departures inevitably come.

The reality with the silver tsunami is that each organization is different and a retirement wave doesn’t always inundate a particular state or local organization all at once. Proactive agencies and departments are planning for future retirements now—or in the very least, recognize that they shouldn’t stick their heads in the sand when it comes to succession planning and preserving organizational know-how.

A recent episode of Engaging Local Government Leaders’ popular and insightful GovLove podcast featured municipal professionals from Southern California talking about workforce trends of the future and the panel, moderated by ELGL co-founder and executive director Kirsten Wyatt, kicked off their discussion with a question about the silver tsunami.

Peter Castro, the assistant to the city manager in Indian Wells, located near Palm Springs, discussed the importance of managers—especially those who are approaching or eligible for retirement—in developing the next generation of organizational leaders. Similarly, younger employees need to be thinking about how they might be able to fill potential gaps.

Castro asked: “Are those retiring managers building their bench? And if we’re on their bench, can we take their place?”

More importantly, Castro said: “You need to be concerned if you’re not ready to take their place.”

Castro’s comment might lead to angst and indigestion for some state and local organizations looking at the future. But Kirsten Nelson, Castro’s colleague in Indian Wells who works as a senior executive assistant for the city, presented a glass-half-full outlook in follow-up remarks, noting that one retirement or a silver tsunami of departures doesn’t necessarily need to be a scary prospect.

From Nelson’s comments on the GovLove podcast (emphasis ours on some of the key quotes):

You have a lot of people … who have been … with organizations for a really long period of time … taking this organizational, institutional knowledge with them when they go. You may not be able to reach them in retirement. They may be living it up on some Caribbean island somewhere and you just can’t get in touch with them.

You have to be prepared for what that looks like when you’re left to handle it on your own. And when you look to how to fill those gaps, who are you trying to recruit, attract, hire and retain? And are they going to best fill the gap or is the gap that’s left behind a way for you to look at skills that you maybe didn’t already have that you can expand on and fill with this hire and continue to improve the organization as well.

I think a lot of times when you’re talking about the silver tsunami, it’s this big scary thing—that ‘Oh my God, all these people leaving, all these people are retiring.’

But I think on the other hand you can look at it as an opportunity. Take a look at the larger scale from 30,000 feet. What are the skills that our organization currently has? Where is our organization trying to go? And what skills do we need to get there? And focus on bringing those skills into the workforce as you’re dealing with this silver tsunami.

That’s easier said than done, of course. But for most organizations, they don’t have much choice in the matter.

Listen to the full GovLove episode on the workforce trends of the future.

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Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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