Life After Government

Life After Government


ear the end of the 1981 movie Absence of Malice, actor Wilford Brimley poses a simple question to an errant assistant U.S. attorney: "What exactly was it you was plannin' on doin' after government service, Robert?"

"Oh no, I'm not resigning," says the attorney, unaware that he's about to have little choice in the matter.

Many career civil servants, when faced with the looming threat of early "career transition" -- that is, termination -- are like that attorney. They choose to live in denial. But whether they believe it or not, large numbers of federal employees will find themselves seeking employment outside the government far sooner than they'd planned. That's because agencies, caught between the rock of National Performance Review reinvention initiatives and the hard place of base closings, program terminations and severe budget cuts, are jettisoning a substantial number of jobs.

How many is substantial? Well, the good news is that agencies have already cut more than 160,000 jobs from a high-water mark of nearly 2.2 million civilian executive-branch employees in 1990. The bad news is that's only about halfway toward the Clinton Administration's goal of getting down to roughly 1.88 million employees by the end of the decade. And Republican budget-cutters in Congress have even steeper cuts in mind.

Like those stubborn pounds still clinging to your middle in the late stages of a diet, these jobs will not go easily. Attrition and early-out deals have already wrung most of the relatively painless cuts out of the system. So most of the employees who leave from this point on will not do so voluntarily. And when they leave, they'll be looking for full-time employment, not an address near their favorite golf course or fishing hole.

Facing the Future

Therein lies the rub. To paraphrase Brimley's question, just what jobs are these about-to-be-former feds planning on getting after they leave government service? And, even more to the point, how, exactly, do they plan on getting them?

These are difficult questions for anyone, but even more so for mid-career federal employees who have not been in the privatesector job market for a decade or more -- if ever. Indeed, "difficult" may not begin to describe how they view the prospect of an unwanted job search in the unfamiliar landscape of the private sector.

"'Terror' is probably a better word to describe the feelings of people about to be dumped from what they thought was secure, lifetime employment into a hostile-looking job market," says Robert Carey, a consultant who teaches career transition seminars for FPMI Communications.

As a former manager with AT&T, which went through a dramatic job implosion in the early 1980s, Carey learned firsthand what's involved in helping people who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves contemplating life on the outside. In the end, he "outsourced" himself, establishing a consulting practice to help organizations dealing with downsizing. Since then he has worked with people in a wide variety of industries. Certain factors, he notes, remain constant regardless of the size or primary business of the organization involved.

"Employees facing restructuring, outsourcing, downsizing, right-sizing, whatever you want to call it," says Carey, "all tend to go through a predictable range of feelings." The first is the fear, based on rumors and ominous signals, that jobs are likely to be cut. "Many people deal with that through denial," says Carey. "You tell yourself that it won't really happen, or that you'll be one of the ones to stay. After all, you're too important for the organization to lose, maybe even indispensable to it.

"But then, when it finally becomes clear that you are going to lose your job, shock and anger set in. 'Why me, after all I've done for this outfit?' is the typical reaction. But eventually that wears off too, leaving many soon-to-be un-employees to fall into feelings of powerlessness and depression. "Underlying it all is the fear that you'll never be fully employed again, that your best days are already behind you. And that's really frightening. No one wants to entertain visions of winding up living in a refrigerator box. But it's hard not to in this situation."

Pretty grim stuff. But the silver lining, Carey notes, is that there is rarely a sound basis for all the fear and pessimism. There are three keys to dealing with it, he says. The first is getting yourself to take an accurate, realistic inventory of your marketable skills. The second is learning a new skill -- how to search for a job effectively. And the third is approaching the job market in a diligent, professional manner that ensures a high probability of success.


Actually, as Carey notes in his forthcoming book, Facing the Future: A Practical Guide to Career Transition (FPMI Communications), there are several job markets, each requiring different strategies and skills to approach it successfully. One of them is the federal government itself.

That may seem surprising at first glance. But in any large organization there's bound to be a constant demand for new employees, regardless of whetherthe organization as a whole is shrinking. Employees still quit, retire, die, get fired or take other jobs -- and therefore must be replaced. Besides, not every federal agency is downsizing. Some, such as the Bureau of Prisons, are actually growing.

In recognition of this fact, in September President Clinton directed agencies to fill openings with displaced feds before going outside to hire new employees. (The Defense Department already has a system in place to give hiring preference to its own employees who have been downsized out of their jobs.)

But remember, even under the most optimistic scenario agencies will be cutting well over 100,000 jobs between now and the year 2000. Neither a spreadsheet nor a crystal ball is necessary to predict that not enough vacancies will appear by then to absorb all the displaced employees. So for those who may not be lucky enough to hang on to their current job, slide into a convenient opening elsewhere in their agency or catch on with another agency that's immune to the cutting craze, here are the primary employment alternatives:

State and Local Government. This is a job market that many federal employees -- particularly if they are located outside the Washington area -- may want to consider. Many state and local civil service systems are modeled on the federal government and will be familiar to those who have never worked in a bottom-line oriented organization.

The downside of taking a job at a lower level on the civil service totem pole is that few, if any, state or local governments pay as well as Uncle Sam. Still, at a time when federal employment is shrinking, state and local governments are growing rapidly. And with both the Administration and Congress looking to devolve federal programs to the states and localities. that trend is likely to continue in the future.

Large Private Companies. What these firms have in common with the government s size and structure. Indeed, some large companies -- particularly utilities -- are more bureaucratic than many federal agencies. Among the advantages to working for a large company are higher salaries, work which is similar to that done in many agencies (such as data processing, financial management and personnel management) and fairly extensive benefits. The bad news is that America's biggest companies are slimming down as fast or faster than the government. So you could find yourself being "downsized" or "outsourced" yet again a few years down the road.

Small Private Companies. Study after study has shown that the vast majority of job growth in the United States is in small companies. There are many advantages to working for a small firm. Small companies often offer a less formal work environment, greater flexibility in personnel rules, more room for rapid professional growth and possibly even a financial stake in the company if you become a key performer.

On the other hand, life in small companies is usually far less structured, more subject to rapid change and often less secure than employment in government or in a large corporation. So if you can't live without an organization chart, a staff of clericals to support you and a starting salary equal to your current position on the General Schedule pay chart, this probably isn't the option for you. Pay and benefits are also unlikely to match those found in the federal government-at least initially.

Self-employment. Being your own boss can mean everything from working as an independent ice cream wagon operator to becoming the CEO of a high-tech start-up. With the astonishing advances in computer, telephone and desktop publishing technologies in recent years -- along with a sharp drop in the costs of equipment -- it's neither difficult nor expensive to start a business of your own these days. That's particularly true if your ego doesn't recoil at the thought of headquartering yourself in the extra bedroom and answering your own phone, typing your own correspondence and filing your own documents -- at least until runaway growth forces you to add staff.

Over the past 10 years, the authors of this article -- both of whom formerly worked for Uncle Sam -- have watched ex-colleagues start successful businesses that specialize in everything from janitorial services to software development. And such opportunities likely will multiply as agencies shrink, since they will have to contract out for many of the services they now obtain in-house.

The downside of self-employment, of course, is that you have no one to rely on but yourself. That can be a lonely and frightening feeling for someone accustomed to the paternal support and trappings of a large organization.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, the overwhelming majority of new businesses do succeed. And in the process, they provide their owners with not only a living, but also a delicious feeling of control and the room to exercise creativity. For some hardy souls, this is more than enough to compensate for the anxiety and loss of benefits such as employer-paid health insurance that accompany independence.

Keys to Career Transition

Regardless of which alternative might seem most appealing to you, Carey recommends that anyone facing potential job loss carefully heed the following pieces of advice before taking action.

  • Recognize reality. Although denial is a routine first reaction to the specter of possible job loss, keeping your head in the sand can only hinder your chances of making a successful transition.
  • Be aware of the emotional component of job change situations. Do whatever is necessary to work through your feelings. Remaining mired in anger or depression will not help you secure new employment. If you find it difficult to get on top of your feelings, don't hesitate to seek out professional counseling.
  • Find out what options and services are available. Most agencies will provide an array of services, ranging from counseling to referral to resume-writing assistance. (See "71 Model Resource Center," page 16.) Take advantage of any help you can get.
  • Develop your job search skills. If your agency offers career transition training, take advantage of it. If not, seek it out on your own, either in the classroom or via the plethora of books on this subject. Remember, if you are facing unemployment, finding a new job is your job for now.
  • Adopt a positive attitude. Easier said than done, but essential if you are to attract a new employer. Dispelling negative thinking will help you do so.
  • Create a support network. Even if your agency provides help in searching for a new position, you should supplement it with family members, friends, co-workers and professional associates who can provide both emotional support and networking help in locating new opportunities.
  • Take care of yourself. Dealing with unexpected, unwelcome change is both emotionally taxing and physically draining. However, you'll only compound the problem by eating wrong, sleeping too little, drinking too much or, worst of all, relying on drugs to pick you up.

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