It has been nearly a decade since then-Vice-President Al Gore went on David Letterman's late-night TV show to demonstrate just how silly and wasteful government could be. Sporting a pair of mad-scientist goggles, he reenacted a federally mandated safety test of an ashtray -- or, as he put it, "ash receiver, tobacco -- desk type." Gore smashed the thing to pieces and then counted the bits to make sure there were no more than the allowable 35. The audience of mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings guffawed, and the subtext was clear: Government is for losers.
You can say this much for Gore's "reinventing government" campaign: It helped succeed in cutting 20% of the federal workforce through attrition, and most recruiting efforts were put on hiatus. But nine years later, officials are still trying to shake government's bumbling image among the Late Night demographic.
Just as the private sector was caught short-staffed during the boom, the feds say they're now facing a talent shortage of colossal proportions. "Many agencies are out of shape and understaffed," says David M. Walker, comptroller general of the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog arm that monitors government operations and management. The situation has been made worse since September 11, as the war on terrorism is making unprecedented demands on government resources.
Further, in three years, one-third of federal workers -- many of them top-level managers -- will be eligible for retirement. In five years, half will be at retirement age. Where will the replacement talent come from? "This is a high-risk issue," says Walker.
Of course, the elite agencies, such as the Justice Dept., Securities & Exchange Commission, and Federal Reserve have never had a problem luring employees. A stint with any of these often means lucrative corporate employment later on. But less-glamorous offices, such as the General Services Administration and Pentagon, have been a harder sell. And several years after Gore's speech, dot-com madness started its reign. Even today, who wants to be on the federal payroll when it's regularly bashed by elected officials? All too frequently, such is the lot of a federal bureaucrat.
Fortunes might be shifting, however. Officials say the unemployment rate and the September 11-inspired swell of public appreciation for government service have given federal recruiters a rare opportunity -- and they're making the most of it. The GAO shows its prospective hires a slick video featuring national TV news anchors announcing its investigative reports. IRS officials brag that they're now hiring people just hours after interviewing them. The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which tracks the federal talent crisis, reports a 13% spike in overall hiring since the terrorist attacks.
Many of the new recruits are ex-dot-commers and other laid-off young people looking for a slice of the stability they once snubbed, officials say. The government is probably one of the few employers still giving out some signing bonuses -- up to $25,000 -- and guarantees of juicy raises. To deal with the looming talent crisis, the government is borrowing further from the private sector's playbook. Some agencies now offer such perks as career coaching and pay-for-performance, college-loan reimbursements, even business-casual dress, flex hours, and telecommuting.
In December, Vijay D'Souza, a 28-year-old University of California at Berkeley MBA, turned down a $75,000 job at KPMG Consulting to take a $65,000 job at the GAO, where he's analyzing information-security practices for the Defense Dept. "I'm never going to be a millionaire," says D'Souza. "But you can see why this work is important and meaningful -- which is a lot more than you can say for most other jobs MBAs have."
The hope -- though perhaps it's a pipe dream -- is to recapture some of the luster of the Kennedy Administration's Camelot, when nearly one-third of Harvard Law School graduates took government jobs. Today, that number has dribbled down to 3%.
Aside from the drop in prestige, one big reason is the spike in student debt to an average of $40,000. Grads figured working for Uncle Sam was a financial cul-de-sac. To help ease that problem, Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James and the Partnership for Public Service are lobbying Congress to make perks now offered by some agencies available to all government employees.
You won't get stock options working for Uncle Sam. But you can get something even more valuable nowadays: job security.
By Michelle Conlin in New York, with Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht