To comprehend the aging of the public sector, look no further than your mailbox.

Postal service workers register a median age of 52 – as high as any other industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The only other group of employees that old work in jobs, literally, near death: funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories.

While workers across all sectors are closing in on retirement age, it’s in the public sector that occupations with some of the oldest workers can be found, which means that a new crop of public servants will soon need to step up and take the helm of government.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled median ages for 227 industries for its 2012 Current Population Survey. A review of the data shows seven of the top 20 industry classifications with the oldest workers consist primarily of public employees, such as those working in public administration executive offices, libraries and public finance. As a whole, government employees tend to be older than other segments of the labor force.

When these workers will decide to retire – and how well prepared governments are to fill the void left by their absence – differs greatly from agency to agency.

The looming retirement of the vast segment of baby boomers has long occupied much attention. For years, economists and academics warned of an impending “silver tsunami.”

By and large, though, a sudden wave of retirements hasn’t yet happened.

Instead, many baby boomers remain attached to their jobs. The prevailing wisdom suggests boomers put retirement plans on hold when the economy tanked, and the hit their investment portfolios took likely provided further incentive to stay employed.

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Rex Facer, an associate professor at Brigham Young University who studies workforce issues, said that as the economy improves, public employees could begin to head for the exits, particularly if they’re subject to pay freezes or feeling the effects of federal sequestration.

“Most organizations can’t close their eyes and pretend it’s not there,” he said.

About 38 percent of International Public Management Association for Human Resources members reported their eligible employees were postponing retirements in a survey earlier this year, down from 46 percent in 2012.

Of course, the private sector faces many of the same long-term challenges in losing workers to retirement, but the issue is even more pressing for some public agencies.

The Labor Department’s age data does not distinguish between all public and private employees, instead grouping them into industry classifications. Over half (52 percent) of workers in the “public administration” category – encompassing much of the sector besides education – were 45 years or older in the 2012 survey. By comparison, 44 percent of workers in all industries fell into this age bracket.

The median age of a public administration worker was 45.3 years, three years older than the workforce as a whole. Professional and business services, another one of the largest industries, recorded a median age of 42.6 years.

Facer expects the federal government to take a bigger hit from retirees than states and localities. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association launched a new website drawing attention to the experience lost from retiring federal workers.

At the local and state level, Facer said top administrative officials will likely be among the first to retire, along with senior managers two and three levels down.

The typical age of a government worker – and when they retire – varies from agency to agency. For the most part, those working in public safety usually retire at a younger age than their counterparts in other agencies; those in senior administrative positions hang on longer.

California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) provided Governing the following data showing average retirement ages for select groups of participating employees for fiscal year 2012-2013:

All CalPERS: 60 State Corrections Workers: 63 School Workers (non-teaching positions): 62 Miscellaneous Public Agency (mostly office workers): 60 Local Police and Fire: 54 California Highway Patrol: 53 CalPERS spokeswoman Amy Norris said there haven’t been any signs of an uptick in retirements so far this year.

Another recent survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) found 63.3 percent of city and county managers and other chief appointed local officials were older than 50. About a quarter of those surveyed were more than 60 years old.

Those in leadership positions throughout most governments are well aware of the fact that the public workforce is aging. However, industry observers warn that the sector, as a whole, is ill prepared for the departure of a large swath of employees.

“If everyone who could retire decided to retire tomorrow, it would be bad,” said Rob Carty, ICMA’s director of career services and Next Generation Initiatives. “We don’t have the number of people needed ready.”

Along with retiree pension obligations, of most concern for Carty and others is the huge loss of institutional knowledge set to take place when these workers leave.

To make matters worse, Carty notes that deputy managers serving department heads often fall in the same age bracket as their bosses. So, in some cases, a management staff may consist entirely of baby boomers around the same age.

In response, some governments established initiatives aimed at filling their pipeline with new leaders.

In California, local governments in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties participate in a talent exchange program, swapping employees for a few months to broaden their work experience and build leadership skills.

Carty said mentoring programs and internal sabbaticals further enable organizations to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.

“There is a skill set, a temperament and desire to do that specific work,” said Carty, referring to city and county managers. “It’s not something you just jump into.”
 

Age of Workforce by Industry

The following data represents 2012 annual estimates of ages for employed persons. The most detailed-level industry is shown for those grouped together.

       
Industry Median Age Rank Median age % Workers Age 45+
Postal Service 1 52.0 72.0
Funeral homes, and cemeteries and crematories 1 52.0 66.1
Personal and household goods repair and maintenance 3 51.9 64.9
Other general government and support 4 51.4 70.7
Religious organizations 5 51.3 63.9
Bus service and urban transit 6 51.2 66.1
Electric and gas, and other combinations 6 51.2 62.7
Labor unions 8 50.6 64.0
Offices of other health practitioners 9 49.6 61.5
Fuel dealers 10 49.4 60.5
Libraries and archives 10 49.4 60.5
Textile product mills, except carpet and rug 12 49.3 61.3
Animal production 12 49.3 57.7
Sewage treatment facilities 14 49.2 63.6
Sewing, needlework, and piece goods stores 14 49.2 63.2
Gift, novelty, and souvenir shops 16 49.1 55.9
Public finance activities 17 48.9 61.1
Metalworking machinery manufacturing 17 48.9 59.4
Administration of economic programs and space research (Public administration) 19 48.7 61.9
Executive offices and legislative bodies (Public administration) 19 48.7 59.2
Real estate 21 48.5 58.6
Aircraft and parts manufacturing 22 48.3 60.5
Miscellaneous paper and pulp products 23 48.2 58.8
Newspaper publishers 23 48.2 55.5
Industrial and miscellaneous chemicals 25 48.1 56.6
Retail florists 25 48.1 55.7
Pulp, paper, and paperboard mills 27 48.0 59.3
Taxi and limousine service 27 48.0 58.2
Aluminum production and processing 27 48.0 55.2
Carpet and rug mills 30 47.9 62.0
Foundries 31 47.5 55.2
Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturing 32 47.3 55.8
Administration of environmental quality and housing programs 33 47.2 55.4
Administration of human resource programs 33 47.2 55.2
Sugar and confectionery products 35 47.1 58.3
Commercial and service industry machinery manufacturing 36 47.0 57.0
Water, steam, air-conditioning, and irrigation systems 37 46.9 60.3
Wholesale electronic markets, agents and brokers 37 46.9 60.0
Paper and paper products, merchant wholesalers 37 46.9 53.8
Truck transportation 40 46.8 56.1
Furniture and home furnishing, merchant wholesalers 40 46.8 49.2
Farm product raw materials, merchant wholesalers 42 46.7 56.3
Cement, concrete, lime, and gypsum product manufacturing 42 46.7 55.9
Crop production 42 46.7 53.2
Paint, coating, and adhesive manufacturing 45 46.6 57.1
Nonmetallic mineral mining and quarrying 46 46.3 55.7
Logging 46 46.3 53.7
Aerospace product and parts manufacturing 46 46.3 52.2
Electronic component and product manufacturing, n.e.c. 49 46.2 54.2
Pipeline transportation 49 46.2 50.8
Printing and related support activities 51 46.1 53.2
Machine shops; turned product; screw, nut, and bolt manufacturing 51 46.1 52.7
Petroleum and petroleum products, merchant wholesalers 51 46.1 51.7
Rail transportation 54 46.0 49.6
Electrical and electronic goods, merchant wholesalers 55 45.9 53.1
Hardware, plumbing and heating equipment, and supplies, merchant wholesalers 55 45.9 51.9
Air transportation 57 45.8 54.7
Legal services 57 45.8 52.0
Animal food, grain, and oilseed milling 57 45.8 51.7
Used merchandise stores 60 45.7 53.3
Home health care services 60 45.7 51.5
Farm supplies, merchant wholesalers 60 45.7 46.0
Machinery manufacturing, n.e.c. 63 45.6 52.2
Elementary and secondary schools 63 45.6 52.0
Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services 63 45.6 51.4
Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution 66 45.5 51.9
Business, professional, political, and similar organizations 66 45.5 48.4
Architectural, engineering, and related services 68 45.4 51.0
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 68 45.4 50.2
Electrical lighting and electrical equipment manufacturing, and other electrical component manufacturing, n.e.c. 70 45.3 53.0
Iron and steel mills and steel product manufacturing 70 45.3 47.9
Management of companies and enterprises 72 45.2 50.8
National security and international affairs 73 45.1 51.9
Machinery, equipment, and supplies, merchant wholesalers 73 45.1 51.5
Coal mining 73 45.1 48.5
Other motor vehicle dealers 73 45.1 47.6
Natural gas distribution 73 45.1 45.0
Water transportation 78 45.0 51.8
Insurance carriers and related activities 78 45.0 50.1
Jewelry, luggage, and leather goods stores 80 44.9 51.3
Offices of optometrists 80 44.9 50.0
Other administrative and other support services 80 44.9 49.8
Miscellaneous manufacturing, n.e.c. 80 44.9 49.0
Mail order houses 84 44.8 50.0
Offices of physicians 84 44.8 49.5
Fabric mills, except knitting mills 84 44.8 48.5
Oil and gas extraction 87 44.7 51.1
Soap, cleaning compound, and cosmetics manufacturing 88 44.6 50.7
Construction, and mining and oil and gas field machinery manufacturing 89 44.5 50.9
Paperboard containers and boxes 89 44.5 48.9
Plastics product manufacturing 89 44.5 48.0
Resin, synthetic rubber and fibers, and filaments manufacturing 89 44.5 47.1
Drycleaning and laundry services 93 44.4 51.6
Communications, and audio and video equipment manufacturing 93 44.4 51.2
Sawmills and wood preservation 93 44.4 50.8
Business, technical, and trade schools and training 93 44.4 50.4
Motor vehicles, parts and supplies, merchant wholesalers 93 44.4 49.2
Ship and boat building 93 44.4 48.7
Individual and family services 93 44.4 48.3
Miscellaneous durable goods, merchant wholesalers 93 44.4 46.5
Travel arrangements and reservation services 101 44.3 47.8
Miscellaneous fabricated metal products manufacturing 102 44.2 49.8
Dairy product manufacturing 102 44.2 48.7
Household appliance manufacturing 104 44.1 51.4
Medical equipment and supplies manufacturing 104 44.1 48.9
Nonferrous metal (except aluminum) production and processing 106 44.0 51.5
Periodical, book, and directory publishers 106 44.0 48.4
Glass and glass product manufacturing 106 44.0 47.3
Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing 106 44.0 45.8
Seafood and other miscellaneous foods, n.e.c. 110 43.9 49.5
Services incidental to transportation 110 43.9 48.2
Motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment manufacturing 110 43.9 47.5
Specialized design services 110 43.9 47.4
Hospitals 110 43.9 47.3
Agricultural implement manufacturing 115 43.8 49.6
Lawn and garden equipment and supplies stores 115 43.8 48.6
Household appliance stores 115 43.8 48.5
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 115 43.8 46.8
Apparel, fabrics, and notions, merchant wholesalers 115 43.8 44.2
Furniture and related product manufacturing 120 43.7 49.3
Not specified manufacturing industries 120 43.7 47.3
Engines, turbines, and power transmission equipment manufacturing 122 43.6 47.9
Civic, social, advocacy organizations, and grantmaking and giving services 122 43.6 47.2
Offices of chiropractors 124 43.5 47.0
Structural metals, and boiler, tank, and shipping container manufacturing 124 43.5 46.7
Vocational rehabilitation services 124 43.5 46.2
Waste management and remediation services 127 43.4 47.7
Professional and commercial equipment and supplies, merchant wholesalers 127 43.4 45.6
Not specified food industries 129 43.3 50.0
Petroleum refining 129 43.3 45.0
Drugs, sundries, and chemical and allied products, merchant wholesalers 131 43.2 49.1
Support activities for agriculture and forestry 131 43.2 46.9
Tire manufacturing 131 43.2 43.0
Securities, commodities, funds, trusts, and other financial investments 134 43.1 45.3
Rubber product, except tire, manufacturing 134 43.1 45.0
Community food and housing, and emergency services 136 43.0 49.2
Coating, engraving, heat treating and allied activities 136 43.0 47.1
Services to buildings and dwellings 136 43.0 45.9
Fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty food manufacturing 136 43.0 45.5
Scientific research and development services 140 42.8 42.7
Beverage manufacturing 141 42.7 44.0
Wired telecommunications carriers 141 42.7 43.6
Furniture and home furnishings stores 143 42.6 47.3
Other health care services 143 42.6 44.5
Construction 143 42.6 44.1
Cut and sew apparel manufacturing 143 42.6 42.6
Miscellaneous nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing 147 42.5 43.9
Justice, public order, and safety activities 147 42.5 42.8
Electronic and precision equipment repair and maintenance 147 42.5 41.3
Lumber and other construction materials, merchant wholesalers 150 42.4 45.2
Outpatient care centers 150 42.4 43.3
Commercial and industrial machinery and equipment repair and maintenance 150 42.4 41.9
Other direct selling establishments 153 42.3 45.8
Groceries and related products, merchant wholesalers 153 42.3 43.1
Recyclable material, merchant wholesalers 155 42.1 46.0
Automobile dealers 155 42.1 44.1
Offices of dentists 155 42.1 42.9
Nursing care facilities 158 42.0 45.0
Miscellaneous nondurable goods, merchant wholesalers 158 42.0 43.1
Museums, art galleries, historical sites, and similar institutions 160 41.9 46.8
Other professional, scientific, and technical services 160 41.9 41.3
Miscellaneous wood products 162 41.7 43.2
Data processing, hosting, and related services 162 41.7 40.4
Colleges and universities, including junior colleges 164 41.6 43.8
Commercial, industrial, and other intangible assets rental and leasing 164 41.6 39.6
Software publishers 164 41.6 31.3
Investigation and security services 167 41.5 44.4
Other schools and instruction, and educational support services 168 41.4 43.7
Building material and supplies dealers 169 41.3 41.9
Automotive repair and maintenance 169 41.3 41.6
Residential care facilities, without nursing 171 41.2 42.7
Hardware stores 172 41.1 43.3
Independent artists, performing arts, spectator sports, and related industries 172 41.1 41.6
Private households 174 40.9 43.9
Non-depository credit and related activities 174 40.9 39.4
Alcoholic beverages, merchant wholesalers 174 40.9 36.4
Bakeries, except retail 177 40.8 40.4
Banking and related activities 177 40.8 39.5
Computer systems design and related services 177 40.8 37.0
Savings institutions, including credit unions 180 40.7 41.4
Beauty salons 181 40.6 40.0
Retail bakeries 182 40.5 41.9
Advertising and related services 183 40.4 37.7
Nail salons and other personal care services 183 40.4 36.3
Beer, wine, and liquor stores 185 40.3 42.3
Animal slaughtering and processing 185 40.3 39.8
Other personal services 187 40.2 40.1
Couriers and messengers 188 40.1 38.5
Barber shops 189 40.0 38.8
Employment services 189 40.0 37.8
Other telecommunications services 189 40.0 36.3
Radio and television broadcasting and cable subscription programming 192 39.9 35.8
Sporting and athletic goods, and doll, toy, and game manufacturing 192 39.9 35.2
Traveler accommodation 194 39.8 38.7
Warehousing and storage 194 39.8 38.4
Support activities for mining 196 39.5 37.6
Landscaping services 197 39.2 35.0
Business support services 198 39.1 37.8
Child day care services 198 39.1 37.7
Health and personal care, except drug, stores 200 38.9 37.3
Miscellaneous retail stores 201 38.8 39.7
Not specified retail trade 201 38.8 39.2
Electronic shopping 203 38.3 32.7
Music stores 204 38.0 40.7
Automotive equipment rental and leasing 204 38.0 37.8
Office supplies and stationery stores 204 38.0 37.3
Auto parts, accessories, and tire stores 204 38.0 37.1
Other consumer goods rental 204 38.0 31.1
Specialty food stores 209 37.8 36.5
Gasoline stations 210 37.7 37.8
Department stores and discount stores 211 37.5 37.3
Veterinary services 212 36.5 32.2
Other amusement, gambling, and recreation industries 213 36.3 34.0
Miscellaneous general merchandise stores 214 35.8 32.4
Pharmacies and drug stores 215 35.5 32.1
Grocery stores 216 35.4 34.6
Internet publishing and broadcasting and web search portals 217 35.1 25.0
Motion pictures and video industries 218 34.8 28.6
Drinking places, alcoholic beverages 219 34.1 29.9
Book stores and news dealers 220 34.0 33.3
Radio, TV, and computer stores 220 34.0 26.6
Recreational vehicle parks and camps, and rooming and boarding houses 222 33.7 40.4
Sporting goods, camera, and hobby and toy stores 223 31.7 29.5
Car washes 224 31.6 19.3
Clothing stores 225 28.7 24.8
Restaurants and other food services 226 28.6 20.2
Shoe stores 227 24.2 18.0

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey (CPS). Smaller industries (35 total) with unpublished median ages are not shown.