a love letter to a lonely job

by Elaine Sullivan (SF2011)

Spend half an hour on the City Hall Fellows webpage, and you will come across these numbers:

· more than 1/3 of this country’s government
workforce will retire in the next decade

· more than 80% of college graduates have no
interest in working in government

· 13% of professional local government managers
today are under 40, while in the early 1970s nearly 71% were 40 or younger.

Obviously, the government workforce is aging. The current worry about pensions is one consequence of this fact; another is one that I did not expect: for a
twenty-three year-old, working in government is a lonely job.

I first noticed how distant I felt from those who have desks around me when I couldn’t chime in with my own mommy joke. I have no idea of what it’s like to get 6
year olds out the door in the morning, or what the morning drop-off line gossip
is like these days. I do slightly better
when the topic is weekend soccer tournaments that my coworkers complain about
driving their children to (they can be up to three hours away) – but only
because I remember playing in those tournaments, less than 10 years ago.

Logic dictates that the majority of people in the workforce are over the age of 30. When you’re the
only person on your floor born in the 1980’s, that logic becomes reality.

I clearly learned a lot from this situation. As my boss was trying to decide on what Halloween costume to get for her kid while between conference calls with
policy-makers and talking to me about my project, she joked, “this is the life
of a working mom!” Growing up, a kid has
a vague idea of what his or her parents are doing, but until that kid enters
the workforce, the life of a working parent remains a vague idea. As a Fellow, I worked in an environment where
that “vague idea” is a norm, and I saw what it takes to leave work early to
pick up a child, or to use sick days to care for a sick family member.

When I mentioned this observation to another government worker, he replied with his own example.
The youngest person in his division is in her 30’s. She was hired right out of grad school, a
young idealist excited to work for government.
A month after she was hired, the agency had a hiring freeze – which
lasted for 10 years. She remained the
youngest person in her division for a decade.

This example reflects what I’ve noticed most about government hiring and firing. First,
government isn’t really hiring. Any
growth in the government workforce faces public scrutiny. San Francisco seems unusual in that it can
add jobs here and there, though there are waiting lists a hundred people long,
and it can take over 6 months from the initial application until one is hired. Second, government doesn’t have the
flexibility to hire and fire like the private sector. The way most government jobs are vacated is
through “natural attrition.” Because
people in government jobs are often reluctant to leave, there isn’t much room
for those of us in our 20s.

I can say with surety that if it were not for City Hall Fellows, I would not have applied to work in government. As a senior in college, most of my peers were attending job fairs and waiting in line for hours to interview with consulting
firms and banks. If government was
considered at all, it was on the federal level.
I knew I wanted to go home, and also work for people, and not for a
corporation. Luckily, I applied to City Hall Fellows and got accepted.

I wish this were possible for many other students like me, and I wish other cities across the country could tap into the young talent that
has recently finished college. City Hall Fellows allows for cities to tap into this talent, but the program has just
started. I can only hope for its
expansion to extend opportunity to both recent graduates and city

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Andrew Clark

As someone who recently joined the workforce after spending six years in higher education, I can relate to the author’s sentiments about a sense of loneliness in government offices. I consider myself fortunate to have a well-mixed office in the contracting company I work for presently, but can see that this is not the norm. In addition to attributing the lack of young adults in government jobs to the current federal hiring and firing process and budget cuts, I would also add that many peers seem to be resistant to the idea of government work. Having just come out of graduate school where professors and alumni constantly talk about the non-profit sector, I can see how this type of mentality may develop and inform 20-somethings’ decisions in looking for careers.

Julie Chase

A very well written and honest account of gov work in general for the millenials. As my husband gets ready to hang up his WG10 hat in spring of next year, our son has just finished college and wants to work for the government. Well, as you have stated “not hiring”. In speaking with some of his classmates at graduation, they all expressed curiousity as to why my son wanted to work for the government. They had prospects in Richmond, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. He was advised that gov is on shaky ground right now and he should head for the private sector. While you mentioned the obstacles to “getting hired”, you forgot one. Vet preference. Gone is FCIP and any other college student or recent graduate program. Pathways is going to be the next target before it gets off the ground. As a parent of a millenial I have heard your story many times with regard to young folks working for Uncle Sam. If by a slim chance they do get in, they find themselves the youngest and possible the only one in the entire office or in the case of WG workers, the youngest on the floor. Up until our organization hired a millenial 3 yrs ago, the average age in our shop was 48+. Young folks we have found are not going into the trades either, dispite the fact we still need need someone to build our ships and planes with a high security clearance. We need mechanics to keep the gov vehicles and heavy equipment rolling. We need plumbers, electricians, HVAC to maintain gov facilities. While most would say “contract out”, ask yourself, do you want someone with a sub basic security clearance building planes, repairing ships and subs or checking the wiring in your building? I think not.

Local and state governments are strapped for cash and for knowledge, knowing that knowledge is walking out the door, not one at a time, but dozens at a time. Young folks who want to get into local gov, I suggest you “know” someone to get your foot in the door.

IMHO, the only thing keeping recent grads and college students out of Uncle Sams workforce is the Vet Preference. Civil Service was built on Vet preference and that is the way it is…….so like my son’s classmates, they are looking for greener pastures.

The lonliness will subside as we all go through the “youngest” stage. Been there, the youngest listening to the “moms” talk about “sock hops”, and the Everly Brothers, Elvis and the Beach Boys and there I was rolling my eyes and longing to hear some Boston, Aerosmith and Journey. Now I am oldest in our lunch out Fridays group.

I too hope for the cities to tap into the millenial talent that is out there and add the federal government to that list as well.