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Should I Stay or Should I Go?


Almost every day we see a news story about federal workers who are retiring or quitting. Whether about the high rate of employees leaving the State Department or about some prominent leader stepping down, an increased number of federal employees are moving on from the government they have served.

Are you thinking about joining them? What are the implications for yourself, your family, and your country? Here are some things to consider.

The Risk

Federal workers typically are viewed as risk averse. Overall, I think that tends to be true. While some are risk takers, as a group, many are not.

How much risk are you willing to tolerate? In government, you have excellent health and vacation benefits, a defined benefit pension, a tax-deferred retirement savings plan, and likely a satisfactory salary. You probably have great job security, especially if you’re a veteran or if you have many years of federal service.  

Leaving government service will probably lead to greater uncertainty. Are you ready for that risk?  Ask yourself:

  • How much economic risk are you willing to tolerate?
  • Are you comfortable with a period of career instability?
  • What is your Plan B if you run into major problems after resigning or retiring?

The Rewards

Decades of research have shown that federal workers gravitate to government work because they’re motivated first and foremost by public service. Is that what gets you going in the morning? No matter the current political climate, federal agencies consistently and sometimes spectacularly implement complex programs and provide unique services every day. You play an important role in making that success real.

If your personal search for meaning is anchored in your federal job, what happens when you leave? Ask yourself:

  • Will professional satisfaction equate to the same level of happiness?
  • What types of companies or non-profits would be an acceptable substitute for government service?
  • Does the satisfaction of public service balance out, or surpass, other work-related unhappiness?

Your Future

Maybe you find risk exciting. Maybe you like your job, but public service is only a small part of that “like.” Maybe now is the perfect time to think about starting over. How would you know? If your job satisfaction is low, your workplace isn’t friendly, or the trends you see in your agency are not in sync with your values, maybe you’re ready for a major life change.

Human resource specialists often say “We help find the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time.” Try to apply this quote to yourself. Ask yourself:  

  • Do you have the right skills for a non-government job? Are they up-to-date? Do you want to try a different career path? Are you ready for more education?
  • Are you in the right place? What other workplace choices do you have?
  • Is this the right time? Should you opt for a complete, or partial, reset of your original career choices?

The 100 Year Test

As you decide to stay or go, you’ll probably discover that it’s a more complicated decision than just following your own desire. Family members’ opinions, or maybe even your political or societal views will come into play. It’s rarely a simple choice.

One thing to consider is the 100 year test: Will what you do today matter 100 years from now?  For those in government service, small tasks and decisions have a way of affecting the public today, tomorrow, and sometimes even 100 years from now. Think about the test this way:

For each jet that flies safely, each pork chop inspected and found acceptable, countless people will benefit. The work of public servants affects the lives of citizens today and safeguards our country for future generations. You can measure it in the citizens kept safe through law enforcement, the military post secured from attack, and the technology purchased that enabled a successful mission.

You may find there are other ways to serve outside of government. Not-for-profit organizations often can offer the kind of satisfaction government service provides. Some contractors perform critical roles that help the Defense, Homeland Security or Health and Human Services departments carry out their vital missions. Public service does not necessarily mean public employment. We have to make our own decisions about what is important and where we can get the most satisfaction.

Whether you stay or go, thank you for your service.

Debra Tomchek is a Vice President for ICF and former HR Director for the Departments of Commerce and Justice. Deb worked in government, retired, then returned to government at the Department of Homeland Security, before retiring again and joining ICF.

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