STARTING OUT


Should You Work for Uncle Sam?

Erin Burt

Don't overlook the nation's biggest employer in your job search. The pay may be more competitive than you think, and Uncle Sam offers security and benefits that are hard to come by elsewhere. Find out if you're cut out for public service.



The nation's largest employer wants YOU. Due to an increasingly aging workforce, the federal government is going on a hiring spree -- especially among the 20-something crowd. Experts say about 44% of federal civil servants are eligible for retirement within the next five years, meaning there's a heck of a lot of job openings for younger workers to fill.

Recently, the federal government hired more workers between the ages of 20 and 24 than from any other age group, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit organization that educates the public about jobs in government. With one of the sweetest benefits packages around, Uncle Sam is aiming to lure prospective employees. But should you bite? After all, doesn't working for the government mean making a pittance at a mundane job in a soulless federal building?

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Don't write off Uncle Sam just yet. Sure, there's some truth to the stereotype, but perhaps less than you think. Consider this: The rate of people voluntarily quitting their federal government jobs is only one-fourth the rate of resignations in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In other words, government workers seem much more satisfied with their jobs.

And there are plenty of work environments besides office buildings -- some federal workers serve in national parks, hospitals, kitchens and laboratories. The government employs workers in a variety of fields from accounting to zoology (check out a list of jobs sorted by college majors), and plays a major role in any key issue facing the nation today from the environment to terrorism to the growing elderly population. And while a large number of federal employees work in the Washington, D.C., area, there are plenty of jobs available across the country, with high concentrations in Norfolk, Va., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Diego, to name a few.

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Right now, the hottest government jobs are in security and enforcement (including criminal investigators, security guards and airport screeners); medical and public health (including physicians, nurses, pharmacists and medical technicians); and engineering and sciences (including microbiologists, chemists, astronomers and veterinarians), according to the Partnership for Public Service.

Show me the money

As for the stereotype of being underpaid, there is some truth to that myth. Entry-level jobs in particular may pay less in the federal government than in the private sector, depending on your education and skill level. But on average, that salary discrepancy can even out over time and, depending on the field, some government workers actually average higher earnings than private-sector employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Office of Personnel Management.

A recent analysis from the Cato Institute, a non-profit public policy research foundation, found that the average federal worker makes 56% more money than the average worker in the private sector. When you include the value of benefits, the advantage jumps to 93%. The study didn't make allowances for years of service, and because the federal government has an older workforce, the number may be skewed, says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. But it illustrates that government salaries can be quite competitive.

Still, says Stier, if money is your primary motivation, a federal job probably isn't for you. For example, a lawyer working for a big law firm has the potential to make oodles more money than if he or she worked for the government, says Stier. But when you work for Uncle Sam, "You're not working as hard, you're not working the long hours and you feel like you're making a difference," says Stier. Government jobs are a good fit for employees that want more from a job than just a paycheck, because they often allow you to have a private life and serve a greater good, he says.

Beyond salary

The government can't offer you stock options, but in a world where workplace benefits seem to be going the way of the dodo, Uncle Sam still provides a bevy of employee perks:

Student loan repayment. Some federal agencies will repay up to $10,000 each year toward your federal student loans, with a lifetime total of $60,000, as long as you promise to work for the agency for three years. In 2004, 28 agencies shelled out a total $16.4 million toward employees' student loans, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Some of the largest participants included the departments of State, Defense and Justice, as well as the Government Accountability Office and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Job security. Who wouldn't like to go their whole career without getting fired or laid off? Your chances of pulling off that feat are much higher in the federal government, where firings and lay-offs happen at just one-quarter the rate in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One reason: Even in hard economic times when big businesses are forced to downsize, the government must carry on -- you don't have to worry about your employer going bankrupt. And only one in every 5,000 non-defense workers is ever fired for poor performance each year, says the Cato Institute. Those are pretty nice odds.

Comprehensive health coverage. About 40% of businesses don't offer their employees any health care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and that figure that has risen dramatically over the past five years. But the federal government still offers its workers one of the widest selections of health plans, and it carries the bulk of the expense for you.

Flexible work schedules. Everyone loves an occasional three-day weekend, but what if you could have one on a regular basis? Several agencies offer a compressed work schedule in which you complete an 80-hour schedule every two weeks in only eight or nine work days. That means you get every Friday, or every other Friday, off. Many agencies also allow workers to choose their own arrival and departure times as long as they have their supervisor's approval. So if you're a morning person, you could choose to start work early and go home in the afternoon, while those who prefer to sleep in might be able to start later in the morning and work into the evening.

Generous vacation and leave policies. Full-time federal employees get ten paid holidays every year (that's three or four more than some private-sector workers get). Plus, in your first three years of service, you get 13 paid vacation days each year (at my first job out of college, I only got ten.) You also get 13 paid sick days each year -- and if you don't use them all, they carry over from year to year.

Top-notch retirement benefits. When you're first starting out, you probably aren't too concerned with an employer's retirement package, but in a world where workplace pensions and retiree health benefits are disappearing, don't overlook the value of this perk. In addition to social security, federal employees get a pension and they can participate in a 401(k) program with a generous matching policy on their contributions.

A few drawbacks

Although the benefits certainly are enticing, you simply may not be cut out for government work. First, there's the aforementioned salary factor. The uuml;ber money-hungry need not apply. Second, despite Uncle Sam's best efforts to overcome its stodgy reputation, some entrepreneurial types might find the bureaucracy in some jobs stifling. And yes, there are plenty of jobs where you could find yourself stuck in a cubicle, but bear in mind that you run that risk in the corporate world as well, depending on your field. You just need to find an environment that's the right fit for you. Using our Job Assessor tool can help you weigh the pros and cons of two different jobs you might be considering, whether government or private.

Speaking of red tape, getting in the door also can be challenging, says Stier, which seems counterintuitive to the big push to replace retiring workers. "The government hasn't been in the business of hiring for quite some time," says Stier, so the system isn't quite up to date. Job listings are now available online at USAJobs.gov, and student opportunities are listed at StudentJobs.gov. But the application and hiring process can still take a while as you jump through bureaucratic hoops. For example, it took a friend of mine several months to get hired for a job with the IRS, and then he had to wait another year before his actual start date. So, persistence and patience are must-have qualities when seeking a federal job.




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