Cities across the state are bracing for an unexpected fallout from the aging of the baby boom generation: a spike in retirement of local government employees who have run cities for decades.

While the baby boomer retirements will affect many industries, local governments fear they will be hit harder because they have an older workforce that can retire earlier. Around Minnesota and the country, officials say they are concerned about replacing the people who run sewer systems, recruit businesses and plan neighborhoods.

In Fridley, three of the city's eight managers are planning to retire in about five years. Brooklyn Park will lose four managers in the same time frame. St. Louis Park is expecting 20 to 30 percent of its workforce to retire in the next decade. Across Minnesota, 43 percent of city, county and school district employees are over the age of 50, according to data from the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota.

"In the next five years, we will lose some key people," said Brooklyn Park City Manager Doug Reeder, who is retiring in April.

National organizations say there aren't enough potential employees waiting to take over leadership roles. In 1971, 71 percent of city and county managers were under 40, but in 2006 just 13 percent fell into the under-40 group, according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

In an effort to head off an employee shortage, the League of Minnesota Cities has started reaching out to cities to help them plan for the coming retirement wave.

"It's one thing if Joe is the go-to person for something, but you always have Stephanie if Joe is gone. But what do you do when both Joe and Stephanie are gone?" said the League's human resources director, Laura Kushner.

Finding replacements

In Brooklyn Park, the human resources department has a succession plan, aimed at grooming midlevel employees to fill positions vacated when baby boomer retirements start. The city already felt the competition of employee recruitment when it took two years to find a finance director.

"We're going to be facing a very severe shortage of candidates down the road," said Brooklyn Park's human resources director, Jack Montague.

The shortage could worsen if more young people don't start pursuing careers in local government now, said an ICMA spokesperson.

"The next generation of individuals should be in local government now, training to become a department head," said ICMA's Michele Frisby. "We're afraid those folks aren't in the pipeline."

Janet Cherrington, a professor in the urban and regional studies program at Minnesota State University, Mankato said many of her students stumbled into the program without knowing much about the field.

"People are not that involved in their local governments anymore," she said. "There just isn't enough knowledge about the need and the phenomenal opportunities that will be opening up in the next five to 10 years."

Different values

When baby boomers were entering the job market in the 1970s, many were looking to make a difference in their country, and growing suburban communities provided the perfect opportunity.

"One of the reasons there is a shortage is because ... younger people ... don't think of local government when they think of making a difference," Frisby said.

Breanne Dalnes, Ramsey's 27-year-old associate planner, agreed with Frisby's conclusion. She became interested in city work after she entered graduate school, but originally she wanted to work in a social service field.

"I'm providing a public service in a very traditional way," she said. "I don't think of this as an altruistic service."

Another approach to the coming shortage is to persuade baby boom workers to stick it out a little longer. While state rules differ, some local government employees can retire as early as their mid-50s.

Along with the League of Minnesota Cities, the Public Employees Retirement Association is hoping to introduce legislation in 2009 that might allow city employees to work part-time without risk to their pensions, said Executive Director Mary Vanek.

"It's hard to predict how quickly those people who are becoming eligible to retire will actually leave," she said.

One thing is certain: It's a problem cities won't be able to put off forever.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628