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From the Magazine  
September 1, 1998

Moving Up, Moving On

By Monica Fuertes

Feeling hopeless after more than 12 years of government service, software engineer Jon Valett closed the door to his NASA office in January 1996 for the final time. Like thousands of other feds fleeing government service during the recent era of massive downsizing and reorganization, he felt the government no longer offered him career advancement opportunities.

As a GS-13, Valett had reached the top of the pay scale, unless he found a management position. But those were few and far between. The one supervisory job he applied for he didn’t get. Plus, at his grade level, a promotion to management didn’t necessarily equal a higher salary. “In many management positions, I’d be getting more responsibility, but no more money,” Valett says. The only way up, it seemed, was out.

Leaving was worth the risk. As vice president of a small software development company in Maryland, Valett is making significantly more money than he did at NASA. He’s been promoted twice in the two years since his departure—a meteoric rise compared to the five years he sat at grade 13.

These are confusing times for government employees, once envied by private-sector workers for their job security and well-defined paths of career advancement. Since President Clinton announced in 1993 that he intended to cut the federal workforce to its smallest size in 30 years, agencies have been on a downsizing binge. There were 2.19 million civilian federal jobs in January 1993; by February 1998 the number had plunged to 1.85 million. That’s 340,000 jobs eliminated in five years.

What’s more, the cuts had a dramatic impact on promotion possibilities in government. Seeking to streamline management, the Clinton administration mandated that the ratio of supervisors to employees in the executive branch change from 1:7 to 1:15. While that goal has yet to be reached, there’s little doubt that agencies have targeted management positions in their downsizing efforts. According to calculations by the Merit Systems Protection Board, agencies eliminated more than 65,000 supervisory jobs from 1992 to 1997—a 25 percent reduction.

A 1996 MSPB study found that 58 percent of supervisors observed a noticeable reduction in the number of supervisory positions in their organizations. The upward trajectory into management that traditionally defined a federal career is disappearing.

“I think that before it was possible in government to just move up through the ranks without having to compete that heavily or really put your best foot forward,” says Vilma Colon, who left the General Services Administration as a result of the agency’s downsizing efforts and now runs Transition Matters, a career counseling firm in Burke, Va.

Now would-be federal managers and executives are finding that if they want to get ahead—either in government or by jumping to the private sector—they need to take charge of their own careers.

Dead End

Colon, who counsels both downsized workers and those frustrated because their careers are at a standstill, says that government employees seeking promotions frequently compete against up to 200 other applicants each time they apply. At the Defense Department, which has borne the brunt of recent downsizing efforts, promotion rates have decreased dramatically in the past decade.

“In 1996 and 1997, an individual was about half as likely as in the late 1980s to end a year at a higher grade than he or she began that year,” says Diane Disney, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy. From the end of fiscal 1989 to February of this year, DoD eliminated 362,000 jobs, 32 percent of its civilian workforce.

It’s not just middle-aged high-grade employees who feel thwarted because it’s harder to advance now. Younger workers at the start of their careers are affected as well. Increasingly, those employees are seeing government work merely as a stepping stone to other careers.

Quelina Jordan, 29, who worked at the Energy Department as a program analyst in her mid-20s, left the government in 1996 for lack of opportunity. Now employed as a private-sector Internet consultant, she recalls the events of two years ago that propelled her to obtain an MBA from American University. Her bosses at DOE showed everyone a video about “moving through change,” and right away, employees knew that some people were going to lose their jobs. “The older people were more stressed,” Jordan remembers. “They kept telling me: ‘Get out. Go back to school while you’re still young.’ ”

Although her agency’s career office encouraged her to apply for positions elsewhere in government, the only other job Jordan was able to find required relocation to Colorado. She recalls being turned down for a half dozen positions. Her grade level, GS-12, was high for someone her age. But her limited years of service made it hard for her to get another federal job. Besides, she knew that if she went to another agency, she’d be first in line to be laid off in the event of a reduction in force.

Another young college graduate who asked not to be named spent more than four years in a dead-end administrative assistant position at the Federal Aviation Administration. During that time, her grade level went from GS-5 to GS-7. But she didn’t like the work and couldn’t get a better job in government despite serious efforts. She applied for about two dozen positions both at her own agency and others. Finally, she enrolled in an evening MBA program that she completed while working full time. Now, she’s with a big accounting firm, making significantly more money. She doesn’t look back fondly on her years in government service.

It’s not just the lack of opportunities that drive some people out of government. For Patrick Mountain, a GS-14 realty specialist at GSA when he took a buyout at age 47 last year, downsizing created an unproductive, frustrating atmosphere. He found it difficult to manage people in an agency that went from 38,000 employees in the 1980s to 14,000 during the Clinton administration.

Constantly rearranging workloads to deal with downsizing made it difficult to get any work done, Mountain says. As longtime employees left, more and more work was turned over to inexperienced workers. “We were dealing with a management that seemed more interested in getting rid of people than in focusing on the agency’s business,” Mountain says. He felt that the agency was spiraling downward and grabbed a buyout when the opportunity came.

An IRS program analyst almost 20 years Mountain’s junior feels similarly frustrated. Although he reached the GS-13 level by age 30, he doesn’t see a bright future with the government. RIF announcements in 1996 and 1997—later rescinded—sent many employees scrambling for new jobs, creating a work atmosphere that was hardly conducive to productivity.

But what frustrates him most is what he perceives as a general “anti-public servant” attitude in Washington. He says he’s tired of the Clinton administration “lambasting public servants” and suggesting that agencies should be “running the government like a business.” He points out that private businesses can choose who their customers will be, whereas the government can’t; the IRS must tax everyone, not just the good taxpayers.

“They’re going to have a hard time attracting talented, capable people,” says the IRS analyst. “The politicians on Capitol Hill are making it sound like the only reason these government workers are there is because they can’t do anything else.”

Easing the Transition

The good news behind all of this agony is that the very people responsible for the pain are also trying to cure it.

In 1994, along with the demand to cut hundreds of thousands of jobs, President Clinton also issued an order requiring agencies to provide career transition services to their workers. Then, in a September 1995 memo, Clinton told the agencies to do more. Many federal agencies now have full-time career transition offices as result of this mandate. Most employees can use the offices at no cost.

The offices cater to the downsized, but employees not affected by reorganizations are encouraged to use their services as well. Both government and private-sector experts agree that now, just doing your job well is not enough. You must keep alert to see where the next one might come from.

“Downsizing has placed more responsibility on the employees to manage their own careers, which they can do in conjunction with the resources at their agency,” says Office of Personnel Management Director Janice Lachance.

In response to the President’s mandate, the Agriculture Department’s Graduate School set up a Career Management Resource Center. Like other such centers in agencies, it provides the full range of career transition services, including nine up-to-date computers, an extensive library of resources and counseling services. USDA also offers two-day career management workshops at various locations around the country, covering such topics as self-assessment, setting objectives, networking, resume writing and interviewing.

Marge Brining, who runs the USDA office, recently started a pilot job club for GS-5 to GS-7 employees. A group of 12 employees met four times during a three-month period at lunchtime. The club’s goal was to teach employees to network and to support each other through the job-search process. The first group, which started in March, was a success; three participants soon found other jobs. Now, Brining is planning for the next group, which will be geared toward higher-grade employees and will start meeting in October.

At USDA, employees don’t have to pay to use the center, but they must obtain supervisor approval for participation in career management workshops. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has encouraged supervisors to allow their employees to take part in the workshops. If an employee really wants to get involved but is barred by his or her manager, Brining suggests that he or she contact her directly.

Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services merged its career management office, created in October 1995 in response to the President’s order, with its Employee Assistance Program and Work and Family Program to create a new Work-Life Center. Like the USDA office, the HHS center offers computer facilities, career counseling and workshops. Two popular offerings, “Career Self-Reliance” and “Developing A Dynamic Career,” cover topics similar to the USDA course. The 12-hour workshops are free to HHS employees whose offices agree to pay the $250 fee.

While most agencies offer career development services at their headquarters, many employees do not take advantage of them, says Ed McHugh, director of OPM’s Office of Workforce Restructuring. “There could be an office right down the hall, and the employee doesn’t even know it,” he says.

‘Freed-Up Future’

While many employees use agencies’ career services to hunt for jobs outside government, others are determined to build their careers in the federal sector. At 31, Leslie Albright, a GS-13 budget analyst at the Commerce Department, proves that hard work and dedication can still lead to promotions and steady advancement. She began her government career as a GS-9 in 1991 and has moved up the ranks consistently since then, including a stint in the one-year Women’s Executive Leadership program, open to GS-11s and GS-12s from across government.

Albright thinks her tendency to take on special projects outside of her main job and participation in professional groups, such as the American Society of Budget and Program Analysts, have helped her advance. “You can’t expect anything to fall in your lap anymore,” she says. “You have to be aggressive.”

In addition to seeking out special projects, Albright recommends employees investigate, either using the Internet or through their human resource offices, training opportunities or special programs available to them. A variety of programs exist that many employees don’t even know about.

Albright’s case shows that advancement in government isn’t impossible—it just takes a lot of effort. “If you present yourself well and work hard—all the same things you do in the private sector, such as show a willingness to take on new challenges—you will succeed,” Colon says.

Downsizing and reorganization efforts have made the government workplace every bit as competitive as the private sector, Colon says. When employees tired of waiting for a promotion come to her, she tells them to apply to other agencies, state or county government, and private firms. But many don’t want to leave the comfort zone of their own agencies.

For federal employees, the first step in career management, says McHugh, is ridding yourself of an “entitlement attitude.” Many of the downsized government executives he’s worked with, he says, are “hung up with their rights,” such as pay, promotions and vacation time. They don’t display the flexibility needed to thrive in today’s changing workplace.

Colon seconds these observations. “Many government employees have a certain set of expectations,” she says. “You still find many, many with the expectation that they’ve been there and they’re next in line, and they should be promoted simply because of this.”

Employees need to know when it’s time to move on, experts say-even if it’s only moving to a different agency. “One of the wonderful aspects of government service is that you can move from one agency to another or one department to another and take all your benefits with you,” says Faith Williamson, career services coordinator at HHS. Many employees, she says, “want to stay in their agency and expect that agency to be responsible for their development.”

Perhaps the greatest piece of advice for all employees is that they must regularly take strategic steps to improve their chances of advancement and not wait until their situation becomes intolerable before acting. The old, paternalistic type of agency that groomed its employees’ careers is gone. And such organizations don’t exist anymore in the private sector, either.

McHugh and other experts offer some suggestions for improving your prospects :

  • Keep current in your field. Take formal education classes and enroll in applicable government-sponsored training courses.
  • Join associations and professional groups serving your field.
  • Keep abreast of technology.
  • Show initiative while at work. Volunteer to take on new assignments in your current position. Make yourself known as someone interested in doing new things in addition to your regular responsibilities.
  • Look for assignments on special projects.
  • Increase your networking opportunities by staying active in your community and organizations important to you, attending association meetings and getting to know people who are in positions you aspire to.
As traditional government and corporate career ladders crumble, experts say, employees need to chart their own paths.

“The outdated ‘job security’ mind-set means being dependent on one employer and one job title,” says Lynne Waymon, a Maryland career development specialist. “On the other hand, the quest for ‘career security’ focuses all resources and energy on being ready to make a living in the marketplace no matter what organizational earthquakes erupt. If the powers that be decide to outsource the Information Services Department, the career-secure employee is ready to face his or her ‘freed-up future.’ ”

Monica Fuertes is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. who specializes in human resources issues.

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