By Tony Romm
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 27, 2008 12:00 AM
For years, some college students have turned up their noses at the mere thought of federal employment, citing poor pay, a low professional ceiling and a deficit of interesting opportunities.
Their reluctance, however, may be changing in light of mounting unemployment in the private sector and growing opportunities in the federal workforce, according to college job placement offices.
Although the private sphere has shed nearly 1.2 million jobs since January, the federal government has added more than 20,000 new employees just in the past three months.
Those numbers have some of this year's approximately 1.5 million college seniors taking a fresh look at the prospects for a career in government.
"It's not your grandfather's federal service; there are opportunities for all students," said Katherine Stahl, director of American University's Career Center. "I don't think there's any major that isn't served by looking at the federal government."
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), federal and state governments have revved up their engines to recruit college seniors this spring semester. The organization's most recent job survey, conducted in October, indicates government officials have increased their class of 2009 hiring targets by more than 19 percent -- the only substantial increase posted by any industry in the survey.
"I know analysts are predicting that [the job market] will probably be flat for 2009 graduates; the unemployment rate keeps increasing," said Andrea Koncz, a NACE researcher. "But governments have a lot of positions to fill. I know they've had those openings for a long time now."
Contributing most to the recent spate of new hires is this year's federal government retirement data, Koncz said. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, more than 30 percent of the federal government's current, non-seasonal full-time workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2009. That figure, based on employment numbers recorded this October, could jump to more than 60 percent by 2016, signifying a growing need to start replacing the graying ranks of the federal workforce.
At a time when local and federal employees are cashing in on what is left of their retirement accounts, the trends make current college seniors the perfect, "moldable" candidates for federal jobs, Koncz said.
In that sense, college seniors and the federal government are, to some degree, mutually dependent, said Zach Golden, a senior at George Mason University. New graduates offer the aging federal government new skill sets, and the government offers graduates some much-needed job security amid a tumultuous labor market, he said.
"We grew up with technology," said Golden, who eventually hopes to work for the federal government. "Everyone in my generation grew up using e-mail and things like that, and we can bring this perspective to our jobs. Hopefully we can help things run a little bit more efficiently."
Yet, unlike Golden, some college seniors are still lukewarm about the prospects of federal employment. Among those students is Keely Foutch, an AU senior who said she has no doubt that she would rather practice private law than work for the federal bureaucracy.
"If I had a choice, I'd obviously go to the private sector because it'd help me pay back my loans and pay for law school," Foutch said. "For me, for students who have outstanding loans, money is most important."
College graduates with Bachelor's degrees typically begin federal employment at the General Schedule-5, step one pay level, which roughly translates into a salary of about $26,000 per year, according to the Office in Personnel Management. Students who demonstrate "Superior Academic Achievement" may enter the workforce at the GS-7 baseline level and may earn upwards of $6,000 more each year.
Those entry-level salaries, however, still fall slightly below national averages. In September, NACE reported that class of 2008 liberal arts graduates entered the workforce earning more than $36,000 per year; engineering, health and science graduates boasted even larger entry-level paychecks. The organization expects to release its class of 2009 estimates this coming January.
Still, no matter what those forthcoming statistics show, money is rarely the reason students consider federal employment, said Lauren Kirkpatrick, a GWU student participating in the school's five-year BA/MA program. Instead, it is the "spirit of public service" that drives graduates to apply for federal jobs, a sentiment among her peers that has peaked since Barack Obama won the presidency, she said.
"There will obviously be a huge spike in interest," Kirkpatrick said. "People who supported the Obama campaign will definitely want to work for him. He'll drive people to welfare and public service positions, where they need more employees."
Whether that anticipated surge in applications actually materializes, however, remains to be seen, said Julie Byrnes, a senior at AU who is contemplating a career in public service. Students often rethink federal employment because the application process is grueling, tedious and lengthy, and Obama's election does not change any of that, Byrnes said.
"Obama is not always going to be president," said Julie Byrnes, a senior at AU who is contemplating a career in public service. "So if students want to work in federal government, they should be committed to the process and the position, not to the politicians."
For the not-so faint of heart, applying for those emerging federal jobs necessitates specificity, Stahl said. The best applications demonstrate clear career goals, which require months of planning, she added.
That's why college seniors can one-up their peers simply by paying attention to campus job fairs, said GWU Career Center Director Marva Gumbs Jennings. Employers embark on college recruitment drives with their hiring targets in mind, which makes outreach programs and career events the best barometers for trends in the job market, she said.
"It's harder to say in September that career fair attendance was a true indication of the labor market of the college education workforce, as opposed to employers merely carrying out their previous plans," she said. "So I've been telling people that our spring employer presence is more of an indicator of how the [economy has affected the job market]."