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Published in Print: December 4, 2002, as Recruiters Target High Schools to Fill Federal Jobs

Recruiters Target High Schools to Fill Federal Jobs

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Uncle Sam has mustered up a new sales pitch, and his pointy index finger bends in a welcoming come-hither. The gray-whiskered gaffer has traded his stern stare and Old Glory-style outfit for a gentler look, and hip civilian garb.

The federal government still wants you, as the old military motto says—but especially if you happen to be in high school and have what it takes to be a civil servant.

That's the message several federal agencies say they are carrying to teenagers across the country, as they try to tap a noticeably younger audience to cope with an anticipated shortage of government workers over the next five to 10 years.

Once mostly the domain of military recruiters, high schools are now seen as ripe for other agencies, too, federal officials say. Until now, those agencies had concentrated mostly on luring a college-age and 20-something crowd.

The anticipated demand for younger recruits arose partly because of last year's terrorist attacks, and the need for new employees in security, transportation, and law enforcement. But the push for young blood is also being driven by old age: Over the next five years, more than half the 1.8 million federal civilian workers in non-postal jobs may become eligible for retirement, according to some estimates. Eighty-eight percent of all federal employees work outside Washington.

"There's a growing realization that we need to start sooner, and not just at the college level," said Claire M. Gibbons, the employment-services manager for the federal Office of Personnel Management here. "We have to start building the pipeline today."

In an economy darkened by corporate layoffs and shrinking budgets, federal recruiters hope to build interest in jobs that many private sector businesses are not offering. While some U.S. government jobs require a college degree, particularly in law enforcement, many do not, and they present immediate opportunities for high school graduates. New prospects will become available, some observers say, despite a continued push to privatize thousands of federal jobs. That private-sector trend goes back at least two decades, and it may have gained new momentum earlier this month, under new plans backed by the Bush administration.

The looming shortages helped spark the interest of representatives from about 40 different federal agencies, who on Oct. 8 explained the opportunities available in public service to an audience of about 100 high school counselors in Boston. The seminar was arranged by the Greater Boston Federal Executive Board, a regional office that shares information and resources among government agencies.

Many federal officials concede that the teenage crowd is an unfamiliar one to them. While the military has actively recruited at high schools for years, civilian agencies stuck mostly to college campuses and the adult workforce, said Diane P. LeBlanc, who chairs the executive board in Boston.

In the past, by the time young people learned about federal careers, those jobs held little appeal to them. Only one in six college-educated workers has a serious interest in working for the federal government, according to a survey conducted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group in Washington devoted to the recruitment and retention of federal workers. A higher percentage of high school students, 30 percent, showed an interest.

"We thought, 'Maybe we're getting to them too late,'" Ms. LeBlanc said.

Empty Chairs

The Department of the Army will see an estimated 44 percent of its civilian workforce, or 90,646 employees, become eligible to retire over the next five years, leading up to October of 2006. The departments of Labor, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development all will see between 42 percent and 48 percent of their workers reach that point. At the Department of Education, 41 percent of the workforce, or 1,776 people, will become eligible to retire over that period. Those estimates were taken from Office of Personnel Management data, and compiled by the Partnership for Public Service.

Federal jobs have long been the target of pushes toward privatization, and that issue arose again on Nov. 14, with a new proposal from the White House. The Bush Administration revealed plans to change regulations and hold federal agencies to much higher standards in showing why their work should not be opened up to competition with the private sector.

Federal agencies have previously identified roughly half of all their civilian federal employees, or 850,000 people, as performing tasks considered "commercial." The president's long-term goal was to open 425,000 of those jobs to competition.

Max Stier, the president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, said last month he does not believe students should be scared away from government jobs because of the potential privatizations. Private companies would still be obligated to show that the they could do the job better, or cheaper, than the government, he said, and federal agencies could hold their own against many businesses. "There are still going to be a lot of jobs for talented people, regardless of the recent outsourcing [effort]," Mr. Stier said.

Federal Courtship

Counselors who attended the government's recent seminar in Boston found reason to be encouraged by the new federal courtship. Ruth Kerrigan, a counselor at Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, Mass., said she constantly searches for appealing postgraduation options for the 20 percent or so of her school's students who don't go on to two- or four-year colleges right away.

"Until now, I don't think they've been thinking about those [federal] jobs at all," Ms. Kerrigan said. "It seems to me that if you're graduating from high school with good credentials, there's a good chance of getting a federal position."

After recent waves of downsizing, many federal agencies are being forced to relearn the process of selling themselves to job-seekers—on university campuses, in high schools, wherever they can find qualified candidates, Ms. Gibbons said.

When teenagers have sought out federal careers, they have tended to crave more glamorous ones, particularly in law enforcement, several counselors and government recruiters said. Many of those jobs, such as special agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, require college degrees, although not for some clerical and support positions.

Even so, agencies such as the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service want to get 16- and 17- year-olds thinking right away about future careers. The agency hired 330 new employees in fiscal year 2002, after the terrorist attacks, even though it was originally budgeted for only 80 new positions to its 1,400-person workforce, said Kevin Williams, a unit supervisor in the service's Boston office.

The agency protects American diplomatic staff members abroad and guards foreign dignitaries visiting this country, along with pursuing criminal investigations into areas such as passport and visa fraud. Starting salaries range from $33,763 to $46,736, but for many teenagers, the day-to-day work would probably offer more excitement than the paycheck. Mr. Williams was formerly assigned to a post in Athens for a few years, and he hopes to take another foreign assignment soon. He once protected the late Princess Diana when she visited the United States.

Retirements will deliver a blow to his agency in the years to come, as will defections to the private sector, the security supervisor predicted. The time to think about filling those jobs, he said, is now.

"I wish I'd had it," Mr. Williams said of the federal effort in high schools. "I'd love for it to continue. We get a lot of great feedback from [students and counselors] that we never did before."

Vol. 22, Issue 14, Pages 21-23

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