Workforce.com

Government Work No Longer the Job of Last Resort

June 11, 2009
In the 1990s, the coolest jobs were at tech companies, where workers could sip lattes and invent the future. In the Aughties, everyone wanted to work in the big-money worlds of real estate and finance.

Now, post-crash, job seekers are lining up to apply for the new hot career: in government.

A combination of an energetic young president and a widespread sense that the nation is badly off-track are drawing those who seek a chance to serve.

Stomach-turning scandals in the private sector mean that there are few shining examples of company chiefs inspiring young graduates. And, perhaps most compelling of all, government jobs offer steady paychecks, good job security and top benefits packages.

“Working for the government, particularly the city of New York, is one of the best jobs you can get,” says Stephen Viscusi, an executive search consultant and author of Bulletproof Your Job. “Not only is it interesting, but city workers have the most incredible benefits packages I have ever seen.”

The new appeal of the government job turns stereotypes on their heads. Now, the best and brightest are after jobs that used to be seen as sinecures for workers who didn’t want to hustle.

The dreaded hiring freeze
Dean Van Tassell, 27, thought that earning an MBA would put him in the running for an entry-level investment banking job when he started his studies in 2007.

Then, five months ago, he found himself with a stack of rejection letters containing the chilling phrase “hiring freeze.”

Van Tassell went to Plan B, or maybe it was more like Plan Z, an option that had only crossed his mind in the vaguest way before the recession. He’s interviewing for a government job that pays about $50,000, even though the pay will be lower than his original target and the work not exactly what he was hoping to do.

“If no one is hiring for a job that will pay $80,000, the effective pay is zero,” he says. “Investment banks do look for the skills you acquire in government.”

The number of city residents working for federal, state and local governments rose to 563,600 in 2008 from 554,400 in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job seekers are paying attention to the federal government’s pre-downturn plans to replace a large number of retiring workers. They also are looking forward to the federal stimulus package, which is expected to begin adding new jobs across the nation this year.

Career management firms are reporting a jump in the number of applicants interested in government jobs. Waffles Natusch, president of the Barrett Group, a national career management firm, estimates that 25 percent of the firm’s clients in New York City—and across the nation—are interested in public-sector jobs.

“Last year, I don’t think it was 5 percent,” he says.

The Mergis Group, a professional placement firm, has recently heard from many looking to bring skills in financial reporting and accounting controls to government work, says Joe Pitino, practice director.

“Those candidates are casting a much wider net from an industry perspective,” he says.

Technisource, an IT recruiting and solutions firm, has seen a surge in inquiries from consultants who want to join federal projects bringing state-of-the art technology to energy, environmental and education efforts, says Tom Roach, regional managing director.

“News related to the stimulus package is opening up some interest,” he says.

Those who investigate the option find welcome news about the pay. The days when government workers traded high pay for job security are gone. For most workers, government jobs pay as well as private-sector jobs.

The average salary for a professional or managerial worker in the federal government across the United States was $65,463 in 2007, with many jobs for lawyers and other experienced professionals paying more than $100,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

City and state workers tend to make less. The Empire Center for New York State Policy, run by the nonprofit Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, found that the average salary for city workers was $59,255 as of June 30 last year, not including overtime.

Top-paid government workers don’t attain the pay levels of top private-sector executives, but even that disparity fades in this kind of economy. Van Tassell will never see a million-dollar bonus in a pay envelope from Uncle Sam, but the chances of seeing a million-dollar bonus in a pay envelope from any company are dwindling fast.

Most migrants from the private sector are looking for attractive career opportunities above chances to give back to society, say career services professionals.

“We haven’t seen a groundswell of people wanting to help out,” says Natusch.

Of course, there are still legions of idealistic young workers looking for opportunities to give back through government, particularly as jobs at nonprofits dry up.

Within the Columbia University School of Social Work, “there has been a palpable rise in interest among students in jobs in the public sector,” says the school’s dean, Jeanette Takamura, who attributes the uptick to factors such as excitement about the Obama administration’s policies, renewed appreciation for public service, and disappointment with private-sector leaders.

At New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, applications rose 20 percent this year, says David Schachter, assistant dean for student affairs.

Mayor inspires
Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn’t have quite the star appeal of Barack Obama, but the mayor’s willingness to take on the messy challenges of running the nation’s largest city and school district are inspiring too.

That’s true for Erin Price, 27, who managed special events for Carnegie Hall before becoming a full-time student at the Wagner School in 2007.

She got interested during a fellowship last summer with Education Pioneers, which works with New York City’s Department of Education. Impressed by Bloomberg’s impact on the public schools, she has already interviewed for a handful of jobs in city government. She’s also considering a move to Washington, if the right opportunity materializes—and she can compete with the Democrats converging there.

“The tough thing is, I’m a Republican,” she says. “The government is hiring a lot of Democrats.”