Why Do You Work for Uncle Sam?

Why do people work for the federal government? There are many reasons given by readers and some that don’t think the federal government is a very good employer.

Most of our readers are active or retired employees of the federal government. What motivates them? Why do they work for the federal government? And, to gauge their reaction to their employer (or former employer), would they advise a recent college graduate to work for the government as they have done?

Readers who may review comments on articles posted on the FedSmith site sometimes get the view that federal employees are an unhappy lot with complaints about their supervisor, pay and benefits, job assignments and other work related topics. Any large employer has some employees who are unhappy and the federal government is no exception.

The comments we received were generally more positive than negative. Someone who is unhappy about a particular topic may be more inclined to post a comment in response to an article. This survey was more representative about the feelings of the workforce as it reflects the opinions of about 1400 people.

Here is a quick summary of the results.

What is the primary reason you are working (or, if retired, used to work) for the Federal Government?

  • 27% are working because of job security
  • 19% work for the benefits package (other than pay)
  • 18% say they have too much invested in the retirement system to leave
  • 15% work to "make a difference" in America
  • 8% work because the money is good
  • 5% like the challenging work environment
  • 8% work for the federal government for "other" reasons
  • And, as to the question of "Would you advise a new college graduate to work for the Federal Government?" the responses are:

    • 53% – yes
    • 27% – no
    • 19% – not sure

    In effect, a number of readers like working for the federal government because of the job security offered by a federal job. A number of readers commented that, while the job security is not as great as it was when they started work with the government, job security is still considerably higher than in the private sector where an employee can lose a job with little or no advance warning due to any number of reasons.

    Some readers selected "other" because they did not want to select just one reason. The liked the job security, also pay and benefits package, and the opportunity to "make a difference" in America.

    One other observation: Almost 500 readers took the time to submit written comments. We read every comment. While our survey did not quantify all subjects addressed by readers, several clear trends emerged. Here are several of those trends.

    Many readers said that while they believed a government career was a good one, they were hesitant to recommend it to new college graduates because of uncertainty surrounding changes to the personnel system such as those proposed for the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security. These readers were often not sure what changes would emerge but they believed the job security would be lessened and the chances would be diminishing for regular raises and promotions.

    With regard to pay, benefits and job security, one other trend caught our attention. A number of readers said they believed pay, benefits or job security were greater in the private sector than in the federal government. But some who submitted opinions said they used to work for private companies, and they went to work for the federal government because the benefits and personnel policies were better in government than in industry. These readers often cited the government’s more generous policies with regard to holidays and taking annual leave, the ability to transfer to different regions while staying with the same employer, and the ability to obtain health insurance with better benefits that they could then take into retirement with them.

    One other observation: A number of readers like their jobs. This sometimes does not come through in comments made in response to individual articles. But, as you will see from a sampling of the comments we received, some people are very happy being a government employee.

    Here is a sampling of comments from our readers who chose to respond to the survey.

    An environmental specialist from Albuquerque, NM wrote: "I’ve worked more than 15 years for the federal government – mostly within DoD – and with few exceptions have loved it all. I have had the opportunity to learn about so many related and virtually unrelated fields because I’ve been an environmental planner and needed to understand the programs and policies to ensure the missions can move forward."

    A field auditor with the USDA in Lexington, KY commented: "Where else could I start at 55 years of age and still be able to work long enough to gain a pension."

    An assistant director for Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC reflects on his career in this way: "I came to work for the VA at the age of 19 without a college degree as a GS-2 with a starting salary of $2800. I am now a GS-15 with a salary of $125,000. I have enjoyed the mission of serving veterans. My job has allowed me to travel and enjoy opportunities that I might never have experienced had I not entered my government career."

    A stakeholder liaison employee with the IRS in St. Louis says: "I have worked for IRS for 22 years, so the benefits and retirement package are important. However, I am finally in a position that I love and is very challenging."

    An IT specialist with the Air Force in Tacoma, WA had this comment: "Job Security extends into and encludes Retirement Security. The company will not go bankrupt or use our retirement funds to bail itself out."

    An HR specialist with the Navy in Washington State likes the government’s leave policy: "I work to play and enjoy the amount of time off, alternate work schedule and salary provided by my government job."

    A senior attorney with the Social Security Administration in Salt Lake City thinks his agency is a good place to work: "Having practiced law in the private sector I was amazed at the petty complaints of some of my compatriots when I came to work for the Social Security Administration. I don’t think any federal worker who has not worked in the private sector has any idea of the pressure to produce that is required. While Federal jobs can sometimes be mundane, they are certainly not stressful and for the work performed I think most employees are paid more than their peers in the private sector."

    An HR specialist with the Navy had a similar thought: "My primary reason is a combination of all the reasons mentioned, but especially the fact that I get all that AND don’t have to work 60-70 hours a week, and have no life! (Been there, done that.)"

    A Coast Guard employee from Elizabeth City, NC likes his job: "I previously worked in the private sector for 12 years. I now have weekends off, regular pay raises and decent benefits. These together with a dependable retirement plan make the US Coast Guard great to work for."

    A retired NASA employee from Huntsville, AL has a very favorable view of government employement: "Lets face it. All the reasons listed above would have most people jumping at the opportunity to work for the Federal Government. Most open job announcements are literally overrun with with qualified applicants. Long term stability and compensation are simply not matched by the modern day private sector."

    A staffing specialist with the FAA in Houston writes: "Air Traffic Control is a great career field, and it’s virtually impossible to be a controller at a major facility without being a federal employee. The job itself has been extremely rewarding and the excellent pay and benefits are frosting on the cake."

    An architect with the Corps of Engineers in Kansas City, MO has a perspective that many people do not consider: "Many handicapped workers are happy to work for the Federal Government. My deaf friends have hard time to find a job at the private firms."

    A lead budget analyst with the Navy in San Diego has a similar reaction to government employment: "I have a visibly severe disability. When I joined the workforce with a B.S. in 1978 it was 12 years before the ADA and discrimination was (sometimes) subtle but pervasive. But the feds already had a law against disability discrimination (1974). That law got my foot in the door to one of the largest and most diverse employers in the world, the U.S. Gov’t."

    A management analyst with the Navy in Millington, TN has this to say: "I’ve worked for the governement 15 years and love my job. No matter how the economy effects the job market, I’ve never worried about my job security. That is a blessing to me."

    But not everyone is happy with government employment. Here is a sampling of comments from readers who are not as content as those quoted above.

    An HR specialist from Alexandria, VA writes: "I am in CSRS and therefore have better benefits (my retirement annuity and sick leave usage) than newer employees. However, I believe that the Federal Government is going to have to step up benefits and pay to compete with private industry for the younger talent who have private industry experience. I’m aware of private industry companies who provide better health care and long-term care packages, profit sharing, and much better funded professional & self development programs."

    An OD specialist with Customs and Border Protection has this to say: "We need to get rid of some of the dead wood. I’m 61 but like change, challenge and see too many people scaring people away because they don’t know how to motivate,support and develop their staff."

    A secretary with the Air Force at Hanscom, AFB in Massachusetts sees a better life in the private sector: "When I came to work for the government the position paid more than the private sector. Over the years, that changed but I had too much invested in my retirement to leave. As for job security…I don’t think that is a sure thing anymore. I’ve seen engineers lose their jobs. As for benefits….companies like Raytheon have better medical. They have paid dental and eye care….the government does not. It’s difficult to see any young people coming to work here until the government offers better benefits."

    A supervisor with the Department of Defense in Washington, DC is pessimistic: "Once there were people that did it for the service to nation. Now they mostly fall into three categories.

    1. Too lazy or incompetent to make this much money elsewhere (a result of grade creep).
    2. Too invested in the system to escape (I wish I could convert my TSP to a 401k)
    3. The few remaining idealists, but too many of those are powertripping ‘mullahs’ bent on imposing their brand of truth and justice on the government. they can generally be identified by the comment, ‘We will outlast this or any other administration. Ignore the SES whenever you can.’ "

    A computer specialist with DFAS in Columbus, OH does not like what he sees happening in government: "I am getting tired of the bureaucratic garbage and and am dismayed at the NSPS system, which will bring back patronage. I’m just hanging on and hoping for an early out to be honest."

    A veterans service representative with Veterans Affairs in New Jersey has this comment: "I would not advise new college grads to work for Uncle Sam. Due to the fact that bad employees inhabit all levels, and they cannot be fired. Also if you are caucasion the deck is stacked against you, due to affirmative action."

    This labor management relations specialist with the Navy in Philadelphia has dim view: "As the workload goes down, the chit chat time increases, the employees still think they are overworked and complain, but nowhere could they ever make what they do after 20 years with the government. With not much education, outdated work ethics and just plain laziness, they still manage to survive and thrive in the government. So, of course I would encourage any illiterate, lazy, unmotivated person to join this establishment, they’ll fit right in."

    And a retired NASA employee from Alabama summarized the comments from a few readers when writing: "I suspect if you ran this survey so that you could compare the answer of retirees versus curent employees you might see a difference in the answers. When I joined the government it was understood that it was not the best paying job in the world, but it was an honor to serve, especially with an agency like NASA. The money was decent, the benefits outstanding, the hours long, the demands great, and the job satisfaction everything I expected and more.
    A new college graduate motivated by public service should seriously consider a federal career–but getting through the frustrating and near-indecipherable hiring process will be the first challenge. It’s unfortunately a broken system and a challenge that discourages too many excellent candidates. "

    Thanks to the many readers who took the time to vote in this latest survey and a special thanks to the hundreds of readers who submitted additional comments.