When I was in college in the mid-'70s, I couldn't wait to graduate and enter the "real" world of work. No more exams. No more boring textbooks. No more living in a dorm. So I took extra classes, went to summer school and graduated in three years at the age of 20.

As we recognize the efforts of American labor this weekend, I look back on those college days and wonder, "What was my hurry?"

For having worked 15 years as a federal government public-affairs specialist, and with another 20 years looming ahead of me until I retire, I feel I have gained some perspective on what it is like to be what is euphemistically called an "embattled civil servant."

When I started job hunting in 1975, public service was a laudable goal. I felt I would be contributing to society, not just working for the almighty buck. The federal employee had not yet become the whipping boy of presidential candidates. But starting with the presidential election of 1976, the federal government and its employees became the scapegoat for everything that was deemed wrong with society. The problem was never the administration's political appointees, inadequate funding or excessive layers of bureaucracy developed by the succeeding administrations. No, the trouble lay with each IRS agent, each air-traffic controller, each public servant receiving a huge salary and doing little or no work.

This myth grew larger with each succeeding election, because federal employees have comparatively little clout with candidates. There's no civil service PAC, for example, and the Hatch Act prohibits us from engaging in partisan political activity. And yet even in the face of this unrelenting, untrue criticism, many of us stay.

Federal pay raises, or lack thereof, also have taken their toll on the morale of professional government employees. Each of us has friends in the private sector who receive cost-of-living raises, which bear some relationship to the actual cost of living. Some federal employees, such as scientists and doctors, who have worked for 10 or 20 years, watch recent graduates earn salaries twice as large as theirs. And yet, despite the salary inequities, many of us stay.

Federal employees also have seen promotion opportunities wither. Twenty years ago, many top jobs were available to career civil servants; today most are held by political appointees, who may or may not have relevant experience for their positions. Perhaps the "spoils system" is so spoiled because -- again, under the Hatch Act -- federal employees are prohibited from working on campaigns, which yield offers of high-level positions. And yet in spite of the lack of advanced career opportunities, many of us stay.

I recently made an informal survey of my fellow federal employees in their mid-30s to early 40s. "What is keeping you here?" I asked. "Why not leave for the better life on the outside?"

Many responded that the government deserves the "best and the brightest." They believe there is more to a satisfying life's work than a once-a-year glitzy office Christmas party. They hope that some day, some presidential candidate will realize that a campaign that brings respect and credibility to the federal work force is worth more votes than one that blames federal employees for all society's woes.

But the bottom line is that the federal government gives people an opportunity to make a difference. No where else can you be a champion for civil rights, ensure the safety of food and consumer products or explore space. That's what keeps most of us here. -- Laura Fox