“Plastics” was the one-word career advice a meddling family friend uttered to aimless Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in the 1967 film The Graduate. If the picture were being made today, that terse advice might well be changed to two words: “Public Service.”
The incredible opportunity that awaits those who go into government work is hard to comprehend. Whether you are looking at city, county, state or federal agencies, the number of public service employees about to retire is staggering.
Consider these facts:
*Forty-four percent of all federal workers become eligible to retire in the next four years, according to the Partnership for Public Service. In nine years, eligibility reaches 60 percent of the federal workforce. One stunning fact: 87 percent of claims assistants and examiners at the Social Security Administration will reach retirement eligibility by 2010.
*The California Performance Review, an independent panel of government and economic experts, warns that the state faces “a human capital crisis” because in the next four years, the state will lose 34 percent of its current workforce. Some warn that number could climb to 49 percent.
*California counties and cities face a similar talent drain. The gap, according to Palo Alto City Manager Frank Benest, is particularly pronounced in the “professional and managerial ranks where fewer entry- and mid-level employees are available to step up and lead public organizations into the future.”
*Currently, more than 25,000 California public employees who are covered by CalPERS (Public Employee Retirement System) are retiring each year. Almost 15,000 (and climbing) public school teachers are retiring annually.
“Numerous reports have been written about the impending human capital crisis that will affect the nation’s workforce in the next several years,” the California Performance Review continues. “The crisis stems from the wave of retirements expected as the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age. By one estimate, there are more than 70 million baby boomers in the workforce versus about 40 million in the generation following them.”
Sounds of Silence
City manager Benest put it in more melodramatic terms in a past issue of Western City Magazine, a publication targeted to management-level city workers. “Stop and listen. Do you hear the silence. It’s the sound of nobody following in your footsteps.”
All of this doom and gloom for bureaucrats adds up to hope and promise for jobseekers. With each passing day, your odds of being able to land a good government job are increasing. Expect to see new and more aggressive recruiting campaigns as government agencies scramble to find adequate staffing.
There is another option as well. Some agencies may outsource their work, but there is a limit to how much government work can be handled by private contractors. At any rate, those private contractors will also be hard pressed to hire enough help.
Part of the problem is more than just demographics. Many concede that the generations coming up may not be interested in government work, since a public-service career holds little appeal. “Government work is now seen as bureaucratic, mind-numbing and generally second-rate,” confesses Benest. “Our best and brightest have not been encouraged to select public service as a career.”
He offers a blueprint for government to address the problem, which calls on leaders to:
Stop bashing government. “Why would any young person aspire to a public-service career when they perceive that the public’s work is oftentimes hurtful and ugly.”
Reach out to students. Benest notes that surveys have found that students often don’t consider a public-service career because no one asks them. “Elected and appointed officials need to reach out to both high school and university students to discuss the nature of local government, careers in local government, and the rewards of public service.
Promote those rewards. Officials need to show that government work does make a difference, just as much as the nonprofit sector, which remains a more popular career choice.
Others emphasize the satisfaction of public service as well. Steven Keil, legislative coordinator for the California State Association of Counties, first started in a government work in 1969. He is passionate about public service: “You are doing work that matters to people – public health, welfare, child protective services, etc. – things that make life better for people.”
Keil points out that county work “is also career work that often requires a high percentage of technical and professional credentials. They (the positions) also offer solid promotional opportunity, reliable pay, and good job security.”
“There is truly a sense of satisfaction in public service,” writes veteran federal employee Kevin Wilkinson, who encouraged young jobseekers to pursue government employment in an article in the Free Lance Star in Fredericksburg, VA.
“Besides financial and other career benefit factors, there is truly a sense of satisfaction in public service,” he wrote. “So what I’m trying to say to all Generation Xers or Yers (pick your catchphrase) is that now is your time to step up to the plate. As we baby boomers embrace our earned retirements, it is your turn to seriously consider working for America.”
Of course, the most compelling facts are the numbers. Wilkinson points out that, in addition to retirements, the Partnership for Public Service anticipates that “more than 200,000 federal workers will resign over the next five years. All in all, the federal workforce could see almost 900,000 vacancies in a very short period of time.
So much for plastics.