Uncle Sam Wants You

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Over the next five years, over half of the federal government workforce is likely to retire, completely gutting vital agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, the Internal Revenue Service and Veterans Affairs. The higher up the management chain, the worse the problem; among top government officials, almost 70% are primed to retire. A culture of denial has set in, and the very people responsible to fix it are the ones who are going to ditch. Many agencies will enter an embarrassing phase of ineptitude, caused by a lack of staff or a newly hired and inexperienced staff.

Get ready to hate your government again. Unless a radical new stance is taken and some laws are changed, we will see the effects of this brain drain everywhere. The CDC might be short on biologists when the pandemic hits. Your tax refund might be late, owing to a paucity of number crunchers. Iraq veterans may be given poor medical care at the VA hospitals due to huge nursing shortages.

This situation is caused by a witching hour of three factors. First, baby boomers are about to retire in droves everywhere. Second, anyone who went to work for the federal government prior to 1984 is grandfathered under an old law that lets them retire at age 55. Third, a hiring freeze during the early 1990s left a gap, so there are not enough middle managers to replace the senior managers when they depart.

Some might assume that we're better off with a leaner government. But this was the same picture FEMA was facing in 2003. The agency typically had 2,500 employees ready to respond; when Katrina hit, they were understaffed by 500. In addition, many of the 2,000 who were employed were clueless new hires. This has been repeatedly cited as one of the causes of FEMA's inadequate reaction last summer.

Imagine that same brain drain hitting three dozen other agencies, such as the Social Security Administration. Three million baby boomers will be applying for retirement benefits every year, but the SSA will have 40% less staff to process their claims.

What happens when the brain drain hits the Federal Trade Commission, which investigates Internet fraud? Or the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which makes sure kids don't choke on toys?

Right now 1.8 million people work for the government, not including the military or the postal service. The government will have to replace almost a million of them in the next few years — as many as already work at Ford, IBM and Bank of America combined.

You might think hiring people is easy, but there are both cultural and bureaucratic obstacles preventing them from succeeding. For instance, three agencies tried an "Extreme Hiring Makeover" to reduce the Kafka-esque process of getting a job. Hiring a new employee at one of those agencies now takes only 53 steps — rather than 114. But it's still 53 steps! This is one of many pilot programs that are being tested, but none are being implemented fast enough to address the severity of the challenge. Another pilot program has begun recruiting at six universities — only 1,946 colleges to go. Regulations also cap the percentage of outside hires to top management roles — so we can't just hire those managers being laid off at General Motors.

The cultural shift away from government employment has been even harder to change. While the private sector has boasted of its commitment to quality and efficiency, the public sector still has a reputation branded by that notorious phrase, "good enough for government work." So the Best and the Brightest believe there's no excitement or pulse in federal service. Even graduate schools that are supposed to train students for government can't convince them to work there. In 1961, Charles and Marie Robinson gave $35 million to Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to ensure its students are groomed for government service. A couple years ago, the Robinsons sued Princeton — because the grad school sends only 12% of its grads into federal service. Everyone expected a spike in public service after 9/11, but it has not materialized.

If the culture does not change, the necessary work will be contracted out to companies like Halliburton, under the guise that "the private sector is more efficient." We'll all be footing the bill for that.

The truth is, the average American would love one of these jobs — but they don't even think to look. Out of sight, out of mind. The government will need to wake up to the modern age, using recruiters and newspaper advertising. They might even need to run an ad during the Super Bowl.

In fact, this may be the best time in 40 years to go work for Uncle Sam. For once, you might be able to advance rapidly, due to the vacuum at the top. Job security is rock solid, and the average salary is $62,000. They often pay your way through college or forgive your school loans. These jobs are in every state — only 1 in 6 is in the Washington, D.C., area. And despite what you might imagine, federal workers are very proud of the contribution they make to society. In a poll, 91% believed they do important work.

People with every imaginable skill are needed — bookkeepers and lawyers and park rangers and meat inspectors. Many of these are better jobs than the private sector offers. A "service worker" for the feds isn't a fast food cashier. She's a police officer protecting public safety. A "maintenance worker" isn't a janitor — he's repairing airplanes. The government especially needs scientists. The feds employ so many scientists of every variety that it's their No. 1 job category. (Yes, there are even more scientists than paper pushers.)

Makes you wonder — what are we waiting for?