Working for the Government: Stereotypes and Realities

The challenge and mission of a federal agency can be exciting; the politics and bureaucracy can be frustrating. Placement and preparation have to be right.

Surveys tell us that most college seniors don’t think seriously about working for the U.S. government. While Uncle Sam spends considerable dollars trying to interest “the best and the brightest” in federal careers, his efforts are up against both stereotypes and realities. Careful analysis, however, suggests that the right agency can provide a rewarding experience to many of today’s job-seekers.

Unfortunately, first contacts with a government agency can provide a lifetime turnoff. Paying taxes or getting a student loan is likely to involve multiple forms, dense instructions, and a resource person who may be neither polite nor informative. Security checks at airports following 9/11 have only increased this potential for irritation. Movies, comedians, and the press fortify unfavorable impressions with revelations or comments on clumsiness, waste, and wrongdoing in government. Occasional worthwhile achievements like detecting and heading off epidemics or exploring a neighboring planet are attributed to atypical public servants who rise above bureaucratic obstacles.

Then, too, there are positive incentives for working in the private sector. While earning capacity in areas like finance, law, and medicine is foremost for many, there are other attractions like entrepreneurship and creative pursuits outside the government’s scope.

But the clearly ineffective federal recruiting efforts have left most college students with little idea of the challenge and variety of work across many organizations and occupations. While the public has an idea of what FBI and CIA agents do, how many have any idea about cutting-edge research in agriculture and aeronautics leading to the food and aircraft of the future? How many might be interested in opportunities to actually make the government more efficient by working on the vast computer systems that impact and sometimes bedevil our daily lives?

The government has done a few things in recent years, typically not well publicized, to make itself a more attractive employer. The retirement system, now including social security and a 401K type plan, has been made more compatible with private employment. This makes it possible to spend a few years with Uncle Sam without a lifetime commitment. Entry level salaries, supplemented by college loan repayments and recruitment bonuses, are comparable for most private occupations, with obvious exceptions like finance and top-tier law.

On the other hand, red tape, resource instability due to changing Administration and Congressional priorities, and targeting of agencies, programs, and individuals for attack by political figures are still day-to-day realities.

Agency web sites and contacts make it possible for a career-seeking person to find out whether a particular government office or program is right for him or her. In many cases, it would be worthwhile to fire up a search engine for a little research.

David Hornestay is a writer and consultant with more than 30 years experience as a management official in several federal agencies. He is a consultant in federal human resources and has authored a casebook, The Federal Guide to Executive Leadership.