Retirement crisis looms for civil service

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2012, 12:00am

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Two-thirds of top civil servants will reach retirement age in the next decade, raising fears that they will be replaced by inexperienced staff and prompting calls by lawmakers for the compulsory retirement age of 60 to be raised.

While the problem will be most felt among directorate-level civil servants, separate figures show that almost 20 per cent of the 170,000-strong civil service is expected to retire between 2016 and 2021.

'Many directorate-grade officials will retire in the coming five to 10 years,' Denise Yue, secretary for the civil service, told a panel of lawmakers yesterday.

Lawmakers fear that the quality of government services will suffer if inexperienced staff take senior positions, while Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan urged the government to raise the retirement age, a move backed by civil service unions.

But Yue rejected the call.

'What I've heard from civil service groups is that they are more concerned about the slow promotion for experienced staff rather than the succession problem,' Yue said, adding that the government was prepared for the retirements.

A document presented to the Legislative Council panel on public service shows that almost 70 per cent of directorate grade officials are aged between 50 and 59. Only about 25 per cent are aged between 40 and 49.

Yue said the government had promoted many young local administrative officers to directorate grade before the handover in 1997, many of whom were approaching the mandatory retirement age of 60.

But former secretary for the civil service Joseph Wong Wing-ping said the retirement age was increasingly outdated, as most 60-year-olds were still in good health. Many other countries had increased or eliminated the retirement age.

'The government should be flexible and offer a few years' extension of service to those who show good performance, in the same way the judiciary system works', Wong said.

The judiciary, which also faces a potential staffing crisis as many judges approach retirement, allows judges to continue for a limited time at the chief executive's discretion.

While some lower-level civil servants object to raising the retirement age because they fear their promotion prospects will be harmed, Wong said their concerns should not sway government policy as the succession issue was a matter of public interest.

Leung Chau-ting, chairman of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, also said the retirement age should be increased to 65, with staff retaining the option of retiring at 60.

The panel was told that nearly 35,000 civil servants were expected to retire between 2016 and 2021 - compared to fewer than 20,000 who retired between 2006 and last year.

Yue said the structure of the bureaucracy had been expanded in the 1980s, and it was therefore no surprise that a large number of civil servants would be reaching retirement age in the coming decade.

But she said departments could cope with the retirements by improving the training of junior staff. 'To spread out the number, only about 7,000 civil servants will be retiring every year [between 2016 and 2021] and the government can handle that,' Yue said.

Leung, however, said action was needed sooner.

But Wong was sceptical about the prospects of the government finding a solution before it leaves office at the end of June.

'It will leave it to the next government to solve the pressing problem,' he said. 'Let's hope [chief executive-designate] Leung Chun-ying is braced to take on reforms.'

41.9%

The percentage of Hong Kong civil servants aged between 45 and 54 in March 2011. It is by far the largest age group