Veterans who’ve joined the government find it’s just too bureaucratic. They bristle at the resentment they feel from colleagues who know they went to the head of the hiring queue. They acknowledge that they don’t always fit in: Just below the surface, deep culture clashes in their offices simmer.
These are some of the issues at the root of why veterans don’t stay long in federal jobs, say former troops still working in government and those who’ve quit.
With new data out showing that veterans leave within two years on average despite the Obama administration’s sustained efforts to hire them — a shorter average tenure than non-veterans at most agencies — we asked some of them why.
Like non-veterans, former service members move on for a variety of reasons, from better opportunities to relocation for family reasons. But veterans say a federal office cubicle can be a bad fit after military service, with limited opportunities to advance.
“Some veterans will say, ‘I go to staff meetings with a pen and paper and I’m all about the mission,'” said Walter Elmore, a drill instructor during the Vietnam War who set up an affinity group for veterans at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Things don’t move that quickly in government. There’s a culture here that’s very different from the culture our veterans are used to dealing with.”
Elmore said veterans suffer from a widespread perception that they aren’t qualified for the jobs they got, since they benefit from preferential hiring for civil service jobs.
“People look at us in a very hostile way,” he said. “It’s a little bit of ‘Who do they think they are?’ When you come into a place and you feel like you don’t fit, you say, it’s a good job, but I want a certain peace of mind.'”
As of fiscal 2014, 85 percent of veterans hired at HUD had left within two years, compared to 78 percent of non-veterans, according to new statistics compiled by the Office of Personnel Management on the biggest push to reward military service since the draft ended in the 1970s. Only the Defense and State departments had kept more veterans than non-veterans on board longer.
Army Maj. Sean Gilfillan, 37, led soldiers during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was awarded a Bronze Star in 2004. Afterwards, he joined the State Department, serving a tour as a diplomat in Warsaw handling public affairs and outreach.
But he left in 2013 to devote his time to his company, which provides entertainment for the armed forces. Many of his friends are leaving federal service too, he said — to start businesses, work for nonprofits or find jobs where they are in control and there is high risk, because they’re drawn to that.
Gilfillan said he grew impatient with the sluggish pace of decision making in government and a lack of innovative thinking. “You leave the military, where you spend a lot of time outside, traveling, doing important missions, etc. Then you go work in a federal building. Boooooring.”
While he said he didn’t leave because it was boring, he said, “I left because advancement is 95 percent based on tenure vs. merit and there is very little individual responsibility verses the military.”
He also said most veterans also are confident they can make more money in private industry.
As The Post reported last fall, non-veterans have their own frustrations and grievances with former troops. While they’re welcomed in some federal offices as go-getters bringing new energy, their colleagues in the civil service say that while veterans work hard, they rarely display independent thinking and often show blind deference to authority.
While OPM says it’s too early to draw conclusions from the numbers, advocates for veterans in government now are very focused now on helping them stay put. Almost two dozen agencies with affinity groups have banded together to help veterans think about developing their careers and find more leadership opportunities.
“Veterans entering federal service struggle to gain ready and consistent access to career development education and technical training beyond their initial on-boarding and orientation training,” said John Angevine, a retired Army colonel now specializing in veterans affairs for the Brookings Institution.
Veterans are “often being told they have to ‘wait their turn’ for more senior employees,” he said. He’s proposed that agencies authorize official time for veterans to use their GI Bill education benefits for career-related education and training.
Sometimes the departures are not the government’s fault, veterans say.
“It’s a two-way street and veterans don’t always know how to describe their experience and skills from the military,” said Lloyd Calderon, who was in the Air Force for 23 years and was hired in 2013 by the Small Business Administration, where he started an affinity group.
“They speak veteran,” Calderon said. “And we need to help them translate.” The SBA had the most trouble keeping veterans in fiscal 2014, with just 62 percent staying two years or more, compared to 88 percent of non-veterans.
Calderon said many veterans at his agency feel they’re overqualified for their jobs. They’re frustrated by the slow pace of advancement.
Veterans with disabilities also complain that agencies are slow to accommodate their needs, Calderon said.
Brandon Friedman, 37, worked in government twice, the first to start an office of digital media at the Department of Veterans Affairs after commanding a platoon during the invasion of Iraq and receiving two Bronze Stars for his service in that country and Afghanistan.
After three years at VA, he was lured by a global corporate public relations firm. Then he went to HUD for just 18 months as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. In July, he left government again to start his own PR firm with friends, The McPherson Square Group.
Friedman said he was much more comfortable in government because there were so many veterans. But he had higher-paying opportunities outside, and being a veteran helped him land them.
He said veterans “are used to bouncing around every three years or so” when they’re reassigned, which may explain why many stay in government for relatively short periods: “They’re used to that lifestyle.”