Not Ready to Retire? Not a Problem at NIH.

A revolutionary federal program lets NIH retain experienced scientists and administrators who reach retirement age.

US President Barack Obama (R) speaks with Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Dr. Francis Collins (L) at NIH in Bethesda, MD, September 30, 2009. 
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
June 27, 2014, 7:21 a.m.

Sixty-two-year-old Joe El­lis of­fi­cially re­tired from the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health in June 2012. Yet he still shows up at the fed­er­al agency’s Beth­esda, Md., cam­pus roughly two days a week. When he’s there, El­lis tackles long-term pro­jects or ment­ors young­er col­leagues, but nev­er for more than 20 hours a week.

Call it par­tial re­tire­ment, con­sult­ing at one’s long­time work­place, or even a grand ex­per­i­ment in try­ing to hold onto key work­ers at a fed­er­al agency. No mat­ter the name, El­lis’s gig is part of a re­volu­tion­ary fed­er­al pro­gram de­signed to re­tain older, ex­per­i­enced work­ers and keep them on the job longer than they nor­mally would have stayed.

It’s a nov­el idea to want to keep around older (read: ex­pens­ive) work­ers at this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment in our eco­nom­ic his­tory. News head­lines might sug­gest oth­er­wise, as many work­ers in their 50s and 60s have trouble plug­ging back in­to the labor mar­ket fol­low­ing a lay­off, or as Sil­ic­on Val­ley (and its fund­ing ma­chine) of­ten seems to fa­vor wun­der­kinds over any­one with gray­ing hair and a fam­ily.

NIH’s pro­gram to keep re­tir­ees on part time has ex­is­ted for years, but it did not really take off un­til the late 2000s, says Ju­lie Berko, Dir­ect­or of NIH’s Work­force Re­la­tions Di­vi­sion. At that time, the agency needed spe­cial­ized help in its grant and con­tracts de­part­ment — the kind of ex­pert­ise bet­ter left to agency vet­er­ans than ran­dom con­tract­ors or freel­an­cers. With an in­flux of eco­nom­ic-stim­u­lus cash, NIH man­agers and hu­man-re­sources pro­fes­sion­als star­ted con­tact­ing re­cent re­tir­ees or those on the cusp of leav­ing to see if they would con­sider stay­ing on part time.

The con­di­tions? Re­tir­ees could not work more than 20 hours a week. Part of that time needed to go to­ward ment­or­ing young­er staff. The pro­gram paid people for their time, while still al­low­ing them to col­lect their fed­er­al an­nu­ity be­ne­fits. Fi­nally, the part-time re­tir­ees were meant to stay on at the agency for only three ad­di­tion­al years.

Now about 80 of NIH’s roughly 20,000 work­ers par­ti­cip­ate in the pro­gram. For the re­tir­ees and the agency, the lo­gist­ics seem to work out well. El­lis still works on ma­jor pro­jects and ad­vises people from his former de­part­ment. That’s boon to the agency be­cause he worked there for about 34 years.

At the same time, he no longer has to man­age hun­dreds of work­ers, as he did at his fi­nal post as the dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Policy for Ex­tra­mur­al Re­search Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is re­spons­ible for the agency’s grants policy. “The ad­vant­age to me is that I lost my man­age­ment re­spons­ib­il­ity,” he says. “That is a ma­jor re­liev­er of stress.” Work­ing part time also gives him the space to spend more time at home and with his fam­ily — two of the ma­jor reas­ons he wanted to re­tire ori­gin­ally.

For the agency, El­lis rep­res­ents years of well-honed, spe­cif­ic ex­pert­ise in grants — a key part of the suc­cess of any sci­entif­ic agency de­voted to fund­ing re­search and vari­ous labs. “The biggest piece is that we get to re­tain tal­ent that would oth­er­wise be leav­ing,” says Philip Lenow­itz, the agency’s former deputy dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Hu­man Re­sources, who also par­ti­cip­ates in the part-time re­tir­ee work pro­gram. The pro­gram also al­lows NIH work­ers to ease in­to re­tire­ment. “It’s a way to find out how to trans­ition from not put­ting on a suit and tie every day,” Lenow­itz adds.

AARP re­cog­nized NIH as the best em­ploy­er in 2013 for work­ers over the age of 50. Part of that dis­tinc­tion comes from this type of part-time work pro­gram for re­tir­ees. But the agency also of­fers oth­er perks to sup­port its older work­force (the av­er­age em­ploy­ee’s age at NIH is 48) that in­clude an on-site gym, re­tire­ment plan­ning sem­inars, tele­com­mut­ing, flex­ible sched­ules, and back-up emer­gency care for eld­erly par­ents. It is part of a broad menu to help baby-boomer or seni­or-cit­izen sci­ent­ists and ad­min­is­trat­ors stay on the job for as long as they like and can. “I do think people tend to work here longer,” Berko says. “People at the NIH are very in­ter­ested in stay­ing around to chase the next sci­entif­ic dis­cov­ery.”

In the com­ing years, work­ing longer will also be­come a key hall­mark of re­tire­ment for most Amer­ic­ans. People live longer now than ever be­fore and will need to work more to fund their golden years. AARP ad­vises its mem­bers not only to save more but also to work for ad­di­tion­al years to en­sure they main­tain their stand­ard of liv­ing as they age. “As we saw in the re­ces­sion, work­ing longer is not al­ways an op­tion for all work­ers,” says Gary Koenig, vice pres­id­ent of eco­nom­ic and con­sumer se­cur­ity with­in AARP’s Pub­lic Policy In­sti­tute.

Yet, if older work­ers can re­main on the job for two to five more years and not draw down on their sav­ings, it can add a huge fin­an­cial boost to their re­tire­ment, says Olivia Mitchell, a pro­fess­or of busi­ness eco­nom­ics and pub­lic policy at the Whar­ton School at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania. “If you delay claim­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity un­til you’re 70, the pay­ments go up by three-quar­ters,” she says. In­stead of freak­ing people out about an im­pend­ing re­tire­ment crisis, Mitchell says she simply prefers to tell people to work for more years. The NIH is one place that en­cour­ages it.

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