‘Am I crazy?' Deciding to work for the government

U.S. Postal Service employee Arturo Lugo delivers an Express Mail package during his morning route on February 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

The government job has lost some of its luster. There have been pay freezes, hiring freezes, and on top of that, there was the shutdown just a few months ago. 

Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recalls giving a speech to a group of Presidential Management Fellows -- young men and women who he says are among the government’s best and brightest.

“And when we got to the Q&A, it was all about: ‘Am I crazy?’ ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘Can I count on this as a reasonable and productive career?’” Ornstein recalls.

Questions like that aren’t unreasonable on the heels of a government shutdown. Ann Porter, a law student at George Washington University, notes federal salaries had been frozen.

“I’m not applying for a government job because they don’t pay as well as private sector positions do,” she says.

And according to her classmate, Austen Walsh, a lot is up in the air.

“It’s certainly not a sure shot whether you are going to get hired, or whether you are going to get a raise or be able to advance if you are hired, which is scary,” he says.

Maggie New deals with that anxiety directly every day. She is the associate director of career services at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can see the State Department from her office window, but it has gotten harder and harder for students to land jobs there.

“You have to have two people leave or retire or resign for one person to be hired,” New says.

As the head of career services at the Harvard Kennedy School, Mary Beaulieu has heard about that partial hiring freeze too. “When you get a sequester situation or a shutdown situation, where people’s budgets are cut, what it means is they can’t do any hiring,” Beaulieu explains.

Kennedy School students want to make a difference, she says.

“And certainly, when the government is shut down or opportunities are more limited because budgets are cut in a sequester situation, it’s frustrating for them.”

Beaulieu says she finds herself telling students this: You can tackle big problems in the public sector, but also in the private sector and at nonprofits.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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