Despite government shutdown, federal job seekers bombard agencies with applications

October 20, 2013

Amid furloughs, pay freezes and political attacks on civil servants, the National Park Service recently posted an opening for a senior communications position that drew 400 applicants. Local universities report waiting lists for federal résumé workshops. And government job gurus are as busy as ever.

The 16-day government shutdown may have been demoralizing for the country’s more than 2 million federal workers, but it did little to deter the hundreds of thousands of people who scour government job listings daily and bombard agencies with résumés, all for the chance to join their ranks.

“Some say, ‘Why would I do this to myself?’ But they still want these jobs,” said Lisa Andrews, head of career services at University of Maryland University College. The school, which serves mostly working adults, offers a federal résumé writing webinar that consistently draws about 100 people at a time, more than any other, she said.

The popularity of federal jobs reflects the continued weakness of the job market, four years out from the end of the Great Recession, federal hiring experts said. As much as the public sector has been buffeted by turmoil in recent months, it is still seen as a haven from something even more uncertain: the private sector.

“The government is still aggressively hiring,” said Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.” “You look no matter what is going on because that’s where the jobs are.”

As of Wednesday, there were nearly 8,000 job postings and an average of 43 applicants for each job whose application deadline was that day, said Office of Personnel Management spokesman John Marble.

The federal government, which hired about 90,000 people last fiscal year, is in the midst of a retirement wave. And that, in turn, is triggering a hiring boom. In the last fiscal year, nearly twice as many executive branch employees retired than did in 2009, according to government figures. And the number of federal workers 60 or older has nearly doubled since 2000 to about 262,000. Low morale is a factor, and the partial shutdown did little to improve it.

For many aspiring federal employees, just the idea of retiring, vs. getting laid off, is enticing. Others have done prior stints at federal agencies and want back in. They tell similar stories of leaving for higher pay in the private sector, then coming back to the government for the security and the benefits.

Genise White, 49, of Fairfax County left her job at the Social Security Administration several years ago for a higher-paying private-sector job and wound up getting laid off. She’d rather work for Uncle Sam now.

“Even though you might not be making as much, it’s very hard to get fired. It’s very hard to get laid off, and you get a pretty good retirement package,” she said. “Who doesn’t want that?”

At a federal job seminar in Annandale on Wednesday, in the midst of the final congressional wrangling over a deal to reopen the government, a 60-year-old former civil servant was looking for work. The woman, who would give only her first name, Jeanette, said she worked for the federal government in the early 1990s, then left to work as a project manager for better-
paying government contractors. She has been laid off twice since, most recently in September.

“I’m seven years out from retirement,” she said. “And I want those medical benefits.”

The contrast between the stability of the public vs. private sector was in evidence at a Friday job fair for veterans, service members and their spouses at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, fewer private employers are recruiting at the fair, said retired Vice Adm. Norbert R. Ryan Jr. of the Military Officers Association of America, which organized the event.

“It’s stark, the changes between 2007 and now,” he said, “because of the challenges of the economy.”

The shutdown kept some agencies away, too: No one was in the office earlier in the week to send over recruiting materials. But they were still hiring.

The lines of job seekers to talk to big-name contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen Hamilton were 20 and 30 people deep. But so was the one for the National Security Agency, which receives more than 85,000 applications a year, said spokeswoman Vanee Vines.

Working for taxpayers holds its own allure, said Sharon Gibson, who recruits veterans for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which hired 721 out of 28,000 applicants last year. “It’s about service and giving back.”

“People who want to work for the federal government want to make a difference, and there is no better place,” agreed Elaine Kaplan, acting director of OPM.

Colondra Etheredge, 40, a military spouse, and Kim Williams, 39, an Air Force officer about to retire next month, said given their backgrounds, government work seemed like more of a natural fit than working at a for-profit enterprise. “It’s what I know,” Williams said.

The unflagging interest in federal jobs is even more remarkable given how arcane and difficult the process of landing one can be. Despite efforts to slash essay writing requirements, it remains daunting.

Corliss Jackson spent 18 years in federal government human resources, including at the Office of Personnel Management. After she left to spend more time raising her three children, friends began asking her for help getting federal jobs. She has been working as a job coach nonstop ever since.

During the shutdown, she had a full week of seminars for job seekers. She learned that lawmakers had finally cut a deal to reopen the government just as she was setting up for her second talk of the day at a Fairfax County employment office. The news barely registered with the two women who came to see her. Both had worked as government contractors, and both wanted to be full-fledged federal government workers or, as Jackson put it, “achieve permanency.”

For the past four years, Dawn McClure, 46, has gotten up each morning, gone to her computer and searched for a federal job. A military spouse who followed her husband, an Air Force colonel, to San Antonio from the District in June, McClure has a master’s in human resources and has applied for more than 100 jobs across a host of federal agencies. But she has had no luck getting an interview.

“I’m a professional job applicant,” she said.

The political forces that led to the shutdown worry Ed Jalinske, 34, a D.C. health-care policy analyst who had his own consulting business but now craves the stability of a government paycheck. He is looking for jobs at the Education Department, at the Department of Health and Human Services, and on the Hill.

Watching the government close up shop “definitely gives me some pause because they are setting a precedent for what could end up being the norm during this administration,” he said. “But I’m not going to let it deter me.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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