Why Work for Uncle Sam? Perhaps To Climb a Huge Rock

As the baby boomers working for Uncle Sam retire, a new generation will take their place. Some see the new generation as different and perhaps not as capable. Here is one new federal employee already making her mark on the government but in her own way and with her own priorities.

As the baby boomers move toward retirement, en masse as we have done in throughout our lives and having an inordinate impact just because of sheer numbers, a new generation of federal employees is beginning to be seen and their impact felt in the workplace.

One report referred to this new generation as the “ho hum” generation. “We see them everyday on the subway. A mass of androgynous youngsters, looking alike with hooded jackets in the cold weather and clothing better suited to the beach than the city when it is warm. They are inseparable from cell phones on which they talk endlessly. Many spend their nontalking minutes listening to music transferred to their iPods. Others, grasping small electronic devices to play games, concentrate on inserting themselves in virtual realities and battlefields.”

That does not sound like a good start but something similar could (and was) said about the unrealistic idealism of the new baby boomers replacing the World War II generation in civil service positions throughout government. The government survived; now the concern is the “brain drain” that will impact agencies as the boomers leave to retire at the beach, in the mountains, or take a second job to find the elusive job fulfillment some have never found.

What does it take to attract a member of the twenty-something generation to the federal workplace?

Here is an encouraging sign. Autumn Ela works at the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming as a federal employee. There is not much job security. The monument is only open part of the year. It is in a remote location and the winter weather makes the park inaccessible for the casual tourist during the winter months. Autumn works as a park ranger with no guarantee of a job next year.

To get the job, she worked as a volunteer for the Park Service. She has a degree in Environmental Studies from Whitman College and probably fits the profile of many twenty-somethings in the “ho-hum” generation. She is excited by the environment she is in and by the opportunity to work in a location like the Devils Tower National Monument.

Part of her enthusiasm comes from the opportunity to climb the Tower which she does on most weekends. She is quiet, almost shy, in explaining to a crowd of visitors the history and significance of this national monument. But while she is not a natural marketing person, her enthusiasm is contagious. She obviously loves telling people about the monument and its history. There is no evidence of the i-Pods or cell phones or other electronic trappings cited as typical of her generation.

In a matter-of-fact tone, she assures the non-climbing tourists that only five people have died climbing the Tower since 1937. It takes 4-6 hours to make it to the top and another hour to get down. Climbers are not allowed to camp there but night climbing is allowed by the Park Service. There are 279 routes up to the top of the Tower but only 25 common ones.

Anyone willing and able to climb up what appears to be a very high rock doesn’t need to be carrying around any extra weight. Autumn is thin and wiry with a ruddy complexion reflecting good health and a love of the outdoors.

Why would someone want a job with little apparent security for what amounts to part-time employment?

For those of us who worked for the federal government in stereotypical government offices, the National Park Service has jobs in places that seem foreign. No doubt, those attracted to working in such an environment see themselves and their futures in a different light.

While most of us may not see the joy of climbing straight up a huge rock in the middle of an isolated area, Autumn’s demeanor and sincerity are convincing. She works as a federal employee because it gives her a chance to do something most people cannot do and to share that enthusiasm with others–and get paid while doing it.

The Devils Tower National Monument is remote; the nearest airports are Gillette, Wyoming (population about 25,000) and Rapid City, South Dakota (population about 60,000). You have to want to get to the Devils Tower in order to see the monument. It is about 110 miles from Rapid City.

The National Park Service is a unique agency that oversees millions of acres of federal land–some of it in remote regions but constructed by God in a beautiful way that President Theodore Roosevelt had the vision to preserve and protect. Like most agencies, there is never enough money to do as much as the agency and its supporters would like it to do. The agency stretches its funds by using a combination of volunteers, seasonal workers with no guarantee of future employment and regular full-time employees.

No doubt, the federal workforce will change as the “ho-hum” generation makes its mark and establishes its priorities. Autumn Ela may not remain as a federal employee. Job security is not her motivation; job satisfaction is paramount.

The future of the federal workforce may end up being different but it may also be better for having been able to attract unique, motivated people such as this Park Ranger who wants to share her love of the outdoors and her ability to climb mountains with the rest of America.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47