Peter Ismail knew he wanted to work for the federal government when he saw the 1968 espionage thriller “Ice Station Zebra.”
Ismail remembers growing up in New York and going to Times Square to see the film, an action-packed adventure starring Rock Hudson about a U.S. submarine dispatched to the North Pole to recover a Soviet satellite, when he was seven years old.
“And I thought that was so cool,” he said in an interview. “That was the sort of thing that I wanted to get involved with.
He went on to spend 36 years at the National Security Agency.
Marian Tyrrell grew up on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, and was educated and then later employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“If you didn’t work for them, or you didn’t work for family, that was it,” she said. “That was the only jobs that were available.”
Tyrrell then moved to Arizona to find a better paying job to support her family, and she found the Bureau of Prisons, where she worked for 30 years. Not only that, but she helped develop a widely used case-file system that digitized education and work records for those housed in the prisons.
“My dad [imparted to us] from the time we were little on that this nation educated us. This nation gave us all kinds of privileges. With that came responsibilities of giving back as much as you could,” said the second-generation American.
Taska Elin, a veteran and a retired federal firefighter of nearly 30 years with the Navy, said it was the camaraderie she built in the military and in the service that motivated her throughout a physically and mentally demanding career.
“You kind of build a family there,” she said.
These vignettes share a theme that was reiterated time and again by respondents to Federal Times’ inaugural retirement survey and in interviews and comments collected afterward. A desire to serve the public motivated many of the more than 530 respondents to pursue a career, long or short, in the federal government.
At a time when public trust in government is nearing record lows, and the civil service has been repeatedly attacked by Republican presidential hopefuls on the debate stage, retirees were given the opportunity to share firsthand how their government job contributed to Americans’ everyday lives. While there is general public awareness of “brand name” agencies, like the FBI or the Postal Service, respondents said much less is communicated to the public about the dozens of other federal agencies that contribute to public health, civil infrastructure, consumer safety or economics.
The voluntary digital survey, collecting responses from mid-October to December, asked retirees to be insiders on the nature of government as they experienced it, and whether claims about stability, financial security and politicization rang true.
Responses came from former employees at more than two dozen federal agencies, civilian and military. Some retired as young as 50; others worked well into their 70s.
Retirees look back favorably
The government, in its effort to recruit the best and brightest against private sector jobs that may offer higher salaries and less red tape, has always leaned on its public-facing mission to attract workers.
With more than two millions workers, it’s the largest employer in the country, hosting more than 330,000 job announcements in 2020 and fielding more than 18 million applications, according to White House data.
More than half of respondents served more than 20 years, according to the survey data. About 35% worked in defense-related agencies, and a third said they also received veterans benefits, which mirrors the portion of the current federal workforce that identifies as military.
“I think the fact of the matter is that people realize that what they’re doing is a public good,” said Reg Jones, the former assistant director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management who writes the “Ask Reg” column for Federal Times. “I also think people feel more secure and more stable than they may in the private sector, where a company could go belly up, or a company, because its profits are down, is going to have to clear people off.”
Benefits a strong motivator
Respondents cited health benefits, and opportunities to work in different fields as the best parts of a career in the government, but Uncle Sam’s promise of a pension was a particularly strong incentive.
About 80% of retirees in the survey said they didn’t go back to work to supplement their annuities or pay essential bills; their pensions are enough.
The number of retirees collecting money from the government in retirement has grown by nearly 40% from 1985 until 2022 to a current total of about 2.7 million annuitants. In recent years, OPM has had difficulty issuing payments quickly due to persisting backlogs. Though the agency has yet to meet its processing goals and is working to modernize its system to expand online services, it has steadily improved this year.
About 35% of employees said they received their annuities within three to five months of submitting their retirement package to OPM. Very few, less than 7%, received them sooner than three weeks. On the other extreme, less than 2% waited longer than a year.
It remains to be seen how OPM fares during this year’s peak retirement season, which lasts until early spring. According to the survey, feds filed for retirement year-round, though the largest number of respondents filed in September, October and June.
Poor management, politics
For all its opportunities, respondents said a career in government isn’t without unique challenges. Poor management, pay and politics were among the most frequently mentioned drawbacks.
For one, the public-private sector pay gap has widened in recent years, with federal employees earning, on average, 27% less than their non-federal counterparts this year.
Increasingly disruptive budget fights in Congress have made the threat of a shutdown and accompanying layoffs more frequent, experts previously told Federal Times. Rules, regulations and changing policies at the hands of a new administration render some aspects of the work inflexible, and others too ambiguous.
About 30% of respondents said they decided to retire when they did because they became dissatisfied with the work or office environment.
And while bureaucrat bashing has always been an accoutrement of government work, the increasingly political environment was reflected in some respondents’ decision not to recommend public service.
“I think it’s important for political leaders to defend the career people,” said Scott Carter, a former political appointee in the Clinton administration and retired Department of Agriculture employee. “Because [they] can make or break you. We make the engine run.”
Others agreed that federal agencies often fail to tell their story to the government’s often unaware customer: the American public.
In the absence of these testimonies, workforce reforms aimed at “reducing the bloat” or “draining the swamp” have filled the void, they said. Presidential candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy have proposed unilaterally firing three-quarters of federal employees and shut down certain agencies. Former President Donald Trump has vowed to resurrect his previous attempt to make possibly thousands of employees to “at will” via Schedule F. Unions demanded presidential hopeful Gov. Ron DeSantis apologize after remarks at an event that included “slitting throats” of the deep state.
“I always thought that it was necessary to keep a distance between my political views and my service,” said Kenneth Zabielski, a retired 34-year federal employee and veteran.
“I spent more time fighting poor leaders and political ideology to do the right thing than accomplishing the mission,” another respondent said.
Others said they would return to federal service if they could stay out of management. Supervisory duties often come with the territory once an employee reaches the upper echelons of the General Schedule, but that doesn’t mean every employee who reaches those levels wants, or is equipped, to manage.
In a separate government-wide survey sent by OPM, perceptions of management received some of the lowest positive scores last year.
Tyrrell said part of the problem is leadership skills aren’t taught as formally to younger Americans, meaning those soft skills can be underdeveloped compared to technical or on-the-job training provided for employment.
“The federal government relies very heavily, and I believe it’s unfortunately and mistakenly most times, on promoting technical experts to managers,” said Carter.
“And in the federal government, micromanagement is a major issue,” he added.
Some respondents also reflected that as they made their way up the ladder at an agency, opportunities for hands-on work diminished when supervisory duties took over. Others said they appreciated training that was meaningful — that taught them a new skills, permitted them to embed with another agency, or do a residency program with a university.
While not every worker enjoys their time in the federal government, most survey respondents told Federal Times they are proud of their careers.
Larry Senechal, a veteran and retired HR director for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that he believed his generation was inspired by President John F. Kennedy, who said famously in his 1961 inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
“We weren’t [in government] to make money,” he said in an interview. “We were there for public service. We weren’t there to see how much we could get out of it. We are all pulling together on behalf of the American people.”
Editor’s note: This is not designed to be a scientific survey.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.