Federal Jobs are Hot Again

By Toni Vranjes

April 28, 2009

The job market is in bad shape. In many industries, the pink slips are piling up as businesses continue to lay off workers.

For the unemployed, the prospects may seem dim. But there’s a ray of light: federal hiring.

In March, the U.S. government added 7,000 jobs while most other sectors cut back. Analysts expect the federal workforce to continue growing in coming years, as Washington tries to stimulate the economy and achieve a wide range of policy goals.

But if you’re checking out federal job listings, expect to have a lot of company.

As Washington boosts its hiring, more and more workers are vying to land those positions, according to John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit group that promotes employment in the federal government.

“The good news is there’s a lot of jobs that need to be filled,” Palguta says. “The bad news is there’s a lot of competition for those jobs.”

Washington Needs You

About 1.9 million civilians work for the U.S. government. Although it’s unclear exactly how much job creation will occur, some estimates are available.

Over the next four years, the federal government will add 200,000 new full-time, permanent jobs, according to Palguta’s projections. He based his estimates on several factors: the recent $787 billion economic stimulus act, President Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget for 2010, and Obama’s plans to transfer some work from private contractors to federal employees.

The stimulus package could account for a quarter of the 200,000 jobs. Some of that hiring will be in the offices of Inspector General within federal departments and agencies, Palguta says. The staff in those offices will monitor the stimulus funds to guard against waste, fraud and abuse.

In addition to creating new positions, Washington will need to replace workers who leave. About 384,000 federal employees will either retire or quit over the next four years, according to Palguta.

Federal Jobs Are In Demand

“Right now, the federal government is becoming an employer of choice,” Palguta says. “The application rate to government has doubled over what it was a year ago.”

There are many reasons for the trend.

For one thing, the jobs are plentiful. In contrast, much of the private sector, and even state and local governments, have been contracting.

Also, the U.S. government is a stable employer that offers good benefits. Over the long term, government jobs will remain appealing because they’re less risky than private-sector employment, says Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight.

In addition, the public has developed a more favorable attitude toward federal work, according to Palguta. During the campaign, Obama pledged to make public service cool again — and it’s working.

“He talks very positively about working in government,” Palguta says.

Kathryn Troutman, author of the book “Ten Steps to a Federal Job,” also says that the Obama Administration has increased the appeal of the public sector.

“In the past, with Bush being president and the emphasis only on the Iraq War, a lot of people didn’t want to work for the federal government,” Troutman says.

In contrast, Obama is emphasizing a wide variety of issues, including “green” environmentally friendly jobs, she adds.

“There’s excitement now about the prospect of working in the federal government,” says Troutman, president of The Resume Place, a Baltimore company that provides coaching for federal job applicants.

Another reason for the increasing popularity, Palguta says, is public outrage at the financial abuses that have shocked the country.

“It used to be the attitude that the government is not the solution, it’s the problem,” he says. “Now we realize that government has to be part of the solution.”

The burst in hiring activity follows the historical pattern of creating federal work when the country is under stress. Other periods of intense job creation were during the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s.

Government Work is Popular, But Applying is No Fun

Although the idea of working for the federal government is popular, the process of searching for work can be confusing and frustrating.

The job descriptions can be hard to understand, and the application process is very time-consuming. Job seekers often are uncertain about the status of their applications, and positions can remain vacant for a long time.

Applicants may be tearing their hair out now, but the process could get easier in the future. A recent bill, by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), would streamline the entire recruitment and hiring system. The Federal Hiring Process Improvement Act of 2009, introduced in March, has drawn the support of the Partnership for Public Service.

If Washington manages to reform the process, federal jobs could become even more popular than they already are.

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