President Obama’s push to hire military veterans for jobs across the government is fueling resentment in federal offices, as longtime civil servants and former troops on the other side of the cubicle increasingly question each other’s competence and qualifications.
With veterans moving to the head of the hiring queue in the biggest numbers in a generation, there’s growing bitterness on both sides, according to dozens of interviews with federal employees.
Those who did not serve in the military bristle at times at the preferential hiring of veterans and accuse them of a blind deference to authority. The veterans chafe at what they say is a condescending view of their skills and experience and accuse many non-veterans of lacking a work ethic and sense of mission.
At the Government Printing Office, six of eight electricians who have joined the electrical shop in recent years are former military members. But Robert Chaney, the shop’s senior mechanic and a nonveteran, said some arrived without electrician’s licenses. One was hired over the phone from Michigan, he said, then quit soon after starting.
“It’s hard to tell until they get here,” he said. “Then you realize this guy doesn’t know common electric components that a one- or two-year electrician should know.”
But Laura Barmby was pleasantly surprised when she ran a training session this summer for the Commerce Department that included veterans. In a role-playing exercise, the eight veterans banded together in reaction to a natural disaster, devising a novel response to offer emergency services to the public.
“When a group gets a certain preference, there’s an inclination to say somehow they’re less than” others, Barmby said. “But they have the real-world experience of having challenges put in their way they need to overcome. If they’re able to do the job, what’s wrong with helping someone who risked their life for their country?”
Obama began accelerating the hiring of veterans five years ago in response to the bleak employment prospects many service members faced after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. It is the government’s most visible effort to reward military service since the draft ended in the 1970s.
Veterans benefit from preferential hiring for civil service jobs under a law dating to World War II, but the administration has boosted the extra credit veterans get, giving them an even greater edge in getting those jobs. The government has also set hiring goals for veterans at each agency, and managers are graded on how many they bring on board, officials said.
Last year, veterans made up 46 percent of full-time hires, the Office of Personnel Management said. They now represent a third of the federal workforce, holding positions well beyond the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.
Their colleagues in the civil service say that while veterans work hard, they rarely display independent thinking.
“You’re getting a very conservative worker that’s very narrow-minded,” said Bob O’Brien, a technology specialist for the Office of Personnel Management. About 90 of the 100 computer experts in his office in suburban Maryland are veterans, he said.
“In meetings, you can’t question anything,” O’Brien complained. The veterans’ attitude to their supervisors, he said, is: “You’re my boss. You could be a complete lunatic, but I won’t question you.”
During the longest stretch of war in American history, many veterans have served multiple combat tours. They say they have earned a right to preferential treatment and resent the perception that they are grunts unqualified for civil service.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘I’ve applied for a job, but some veteran’s just going to get it,’ ” said Mark Butler, 56, a Navy veteran who investigates fair-housing violations for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boston.
“I think veterans bring so much to the table,” he added. “The military is not all screaming, yelling [at] people to charge up the hill and kill, kill, kill.”
By law, veterans who meet certain criteria related to where, when and how long they served and whether they were injured go to the head of the line when they are considered for civil service jobs. Troops with combat injuries or those disabled during their service get higher preference. Butler, for instance, developed bad knees and suffered from a degenerative disk disease during his 30 years in the Navy, qualifying him as disabled.
For some open positions, a veteran can be hired without the job being advertised to the public. And veterans who are already in the federal workforce continue to receive preferential consideration when they apply for other government jobs.
In some federal offices, seasoned employees are welcoming former service members as motivated go-getters who bring new energy to places where old-timers seem as if they are punching a clock until retirement. But in many others, interviews show, ill will is smoldering, and two very different cultures are clashing.
The strains are deepening as the Defense Department cuts spending and sheds troops at the same time that federal budget pressures have shrunk the hiring of civilians to a five-year low. There are fewer jobs to go around.
It’s the same anxiety and resentment that came with the government’s affirmative-action policies for African Americans.
“I say to vets, ‘When you apply for a government job, if you are qualified, you should get the job,’ ” said Walter Elmore, 63, a drill instructor during the Vietnam War who set up an affinity group for veterans at HUD.
He said that veterans suffer from a widespread misconception because “most people think if you’re a vet, you don’t have to be qualified.”
Some veterans are also frustrated that they are landing jobs that do not reflect their experience. Many of them had a lot of responsibility while still in their 20s, leading units into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ebony Rankin supervised 50 sailors as a junior naval officer but initially settled for an administrative job at HUD with few supervisory responsibilities. It took her three years to move up to a more senior position administering grants to the homeless.
“I try to tell veterans they’ve got to get in at a lower grade and work your way up,” she said, “because the jobs are so specialized.”
Day to day, the two groups are trying to sort out their cultural differences.
In her first week on the job as a management analyst in HUD’s human resources office, Gwen Colvin, a former master sergeant in the Air Force, started to move the boxes she had brought with her so she could unpack them and hang her military commendations and other memorabilia on her office wall. Her colleagues told her to wait for the maintenance staff to do those things because that was the protocol. Colvin said she was dumbfounded. In her view, she needed something done, so she did what she did in the military: She got it done.
“I swing a mean hammer!” she said. “I told them, ‘What do you mean, I shouldn’t lift this box?’ ”
At the Interior Department offices in Albuquerque, it took a long time for a civilian, Earl Waits, to get used to young veterans calling him “sir.” At first, it was jarring, said Waits, 65, the chief administrative law judge handling probate issues involving Native American lands. “But I understand that’s just part of the culture they came out of,” he said.
A female manager at the U.S. Forest Service in Milwaukee said veterans make sexually suggestive comments to her and colleagues.
“I understand their lives were on the line over in Iraq, but we have a lot of, quite frankly, complaints,” said the manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “They’re a little rough with their people skills.”
But there are corners of the government where the two groups are in sync. At HUD’s broadcast office, a team of 18 young engineers operates an in-house television station and acts as the audio-visual arm of the department’s Web site. A third are veterans who did similar jobs in the military, and the boss, Bill Amos, is a retired Army master sergeant.
On a recent Monday, the entire team trickled into a lunchtime staff meeting in the basement of their L’Enfant Plaza headquarters. The employees talked openly about their different work styles. Matt Frazer, who came from the private sector, said that if he found a different way to get something done, he would try it. But, he told the veterans, “you guys don’t question the path to get to your goal.”
At the same time, he acknowledged some envy over the veterans’ bond. “It’s like you have your own fraternity,” he said.
Bob Landau, also a non-veteran, defended those who came from the military, saying they are more driven. “Civilians just get promoted because of time,” he added.
During the meeting, it was hard to distinguish who had served in the military and who had not. Some of the non-veterans kept their hair in the tight-and-high style favored by the military.
They ribbed each other over whether anyone could tell them apart.
“This is where it starts,” Landau joked, rolling his eyes in anticipation of the war stories to come.