Young workers souring on federal careers


Matt Linton works for NASA dealing with emergency cyber security. During the recent government shutdown, he was approached by numerous recruiters offering him higher pay if he is willing to leave the federal government. (Preston Gannaway/For The Washington Post)

Inside his dark, windowless office, lit only by a string of Christmas lights, Matt Linton, 33, loves working as a “digital firefighter,” battling hackers from all over the world inside NASA’s research labs in Silicon Valley.

But this week, the “cybersecurity guy,” with a mohawk tinged by pink and orange, is having coffee with two of the nine private industry recruiters who tried to lure him away while he was furloughed during the government’s partial shutdown this month. They have offered $30,000 more in pay and the promise of “never being called nonessential again.”

“No matter how much you love your job, everybody has their limits, their price,” said Linton, who grew up in Frederick, Md. “If Congress wanted to force young people out of federal jobs, then they are doing a great job.”

Disillusioned by furloughs and worried about budget cuts and pay freezes, many young federal employees such as Linton say that they can’t help but look toward the door.

The government and private companies alike are vulnerable to the departure of younger employees because they often have high-tech skills that are much in demand and they are willing to jump at new opportunities. While a government job still remains attractive to many, the continuing turbulence of federal work has made the government a less competitive employer.

Mid-career civil servants are voicing many of the same complaints as their younger co-
workers and share the same apprehension about the prospect of more shutdowns. But it is employees in their 20s and 30s who are finding it easier to secure private-sector employment in the sluggish job market, because they tend to be lower paid and can more easily move to new cities.

They are souring on government work just when they are needed most, experts say. The federal government is amid a retirement wave, with nearly twice as many executive branch employees leaving in the past fiscal year than did in 2009, according to federal figures.

“The shutdown was the perfect storm in turning millennials off from a career in government,” said Jason Dorsey, 35, chief strategy officer at the Center for Generational Kinetics, a private consulting group. They are already everything the government is not: fast-moving, restless for change and entrepreneurial. So the shutdown was just one huge slap in the face, a wake-up call that said, “Why am I working here again?”

No one has compiled statistics on the number of federal workers quitting their jobs or looking to do so. But public employees say the chorus of dissatisfaction among young people is reaching record decibels.

“Leaving is the buzz from everyone I know who’s young and has a government job,” said Sam Nevarez, 36, who works in human resources management in the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque. He is also a national committee member of the Young Federal Leaders, a union program that mentors federal employees.

Nevarez, who makes $37,000, is polishing his résumé. He helps support his elderly parents, and during the shutdown had to borrow money from his brother, who works in banking.

“I never thought I would be here,” he said. “But the private sector is just looking better and better.”

Linton, according to his supervisors, is the ideal employee — innovative and passionate. In 2012, he won the National Cybersecurity Innovation Award for saving the government money by producing inexpensive programs. In Silicon Valley, where NASA is located next to Google and Stanford University, headhunters were eager to invite him to coffee.

He had a “soul searching” talk with his wife about whether he should leave. He said the typical starting salary for a comparable job in private industry is about $155,000, the maximum he could make working for the federal government. He earns $122,000, but he said the money doesn’t go far because the cost of living is high in California and his wife is staying home to raise their 6-year-old daughter.

“For the first week [of the shutdown] I was saying, well, I work for NASA with such brilliant people, doing great things for our country, and that’s the trade-off because I am happy,” said Linton, who studied at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “But at the end of the second week, I thought, we only have one income. I really should hear what the recruiters have to say.”

Even before the shutdown, young people like Linton were leaving government jobs faster than previous generations. Millennials, who entered the job market amid widespread layoffs and high unemployment, say they don’t assume they’ll get jobs for life in any institution.

By contrast, mid-career federal employees, who often have higher salaries, better hours and pensions to think about, are less likely to depart.

Lee Stone is Linton’s co-worker at NASA. A scientist who studies the impact of space travel on human performance, Stone is in his early 50s and is faced with paying for the college educations of his two children. “Obviously, I can’t take the kind of risks that young people can take,” he said.

But more important, Stone said, he is committed to the work of his agency.

“I would have to give up my life’s pursuit to allow humans to spend more time in space, and all the goals that my generation aspired to,” he said, adding that he was inspired by “the reality of Apollo, the fantasy of ‘Star Trek’ and the call to service of John F. Kennedy.”

Stone said he is worried about young people leaving NASA, because the research at his agency often spans decades.

The exasperation that young employees are voicing is more than empty complaints. Some have already departed in recent months.

Army Maj. Sean Gilfillan, 34, led soldiers during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was awarded a Bronze Star in 2004. Later, while in the reserves, he joined the State Department, serving a tour as a diplomat in Warsaw handling public affairs and outreach.

But he left the government in June to focus on his business, TTF Entertainment, a veteran-owned company that provides entertainment — from rock bands to comedians — for the armed forces. He said he became frustrated with government’s inertia and the sluggish promotion process. The threat of furloughs and budget cuts added to his thinking that he could have a greater impact working on his own.

“I realized that in the federal government, you don’t have control over your own destiny,” Gilfillan said. “Even if you are an awesome officer, that doesn’t really determine whether you are essential.”

Just a few weeks ago, Ashley Bress, 28, packed up her apartment in Arlington, said goodbye to her roommate and took a flight out of Washington.

For the past three years, Bress has been developing food and nutrition policy for national emergencies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But she said recent budget cuts, furloughs and pay freezes, along with the lack of public respect for government jobs, “was just too much.” Bress also worries about the $50,000 in student loan debt she incurred while getting a master’s degree at George Washington University.

“I started out so excited to help policy and people across the country who were going through tragedies I had seen my whole life,” said Bress, who lived through tornadoes and floods growing up in Iowa. “I always thought this would be a long and noble career.”

Bress has been snatched up by a nonprofit group, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque in Iowa.

As for Linton, the cybersecurity responder, he said he will decide soon whether he’ll leave NASA.

“The sad thing is, I love this place,” he said from his lab, which is strewn with partially disassembled computers, networking gear, empty root-beer bottles and a framed “MAN ON THE MOON” Time magazine cover. “Leaving is probably the most practical idea. But it’s heartbreaking.”

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