Printer Friendly

Does working for Uncle Sam still make sense? The government has long been the leading employer of African Americans, but as cutbacks take hold, many must reevaluate their career options.

Thirty years ago, beginning with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, African Americans were welcomed into the local and federal government workforce at all levels. Having long struggled against discrimination in the private sector, black workers viewed government as the employer of choice: The pay was competitive, the benefits couldn't be beat and there was opportunity for advancement. As significant numbers of minorities continued to fill public sector jobs into the 1980s, many came to believe that a job in government was a job for life.

That was then.

In response to the nation's craving for a smaller, more efficient government, Congress and the White House passed the Work Force Restructuring Act of 1993 - an agreement to reduce the federal workforce by 272,900 employees between 1993 and 1999. They hoped to accomplish this goal largely through offers of early retirement and cash buyouts of up to $25,000. But when the Republicans took over the House and the Senate in 1994, they assaulted big government further, pushing for deeper cuts at a faster rate. That meant that buyouts alone wouldn't satisfy the need to shrink the federal government.

So far, approximately 160,000 federal employees - mostly white males near retirement age - have taken the money and run. In fiscal year 1994, 76.3% of the buyouts went to non-minorities, 62.9% of whom were male. According to Lorraine Green, deputy chief of the Office of Personnel Management, that trend has saved the jobs of minorities and women, who have less seniority. But as a bitter partisan debate over the 1996 budget heats up, federal employees across the country are understandably in fear of losing their jobs. Indeed, many are being forced to rethink their career options as the job security they'd taken for granted is being slowly severed under the weight of the budget cutter's ax. "I think they're nervous," says Green. "They see people leaving - so far, voluntarily - but they know there's this cloud hanging over them because there will be more reductions in the force."

Just how cloudy is it? In November, President Clinton and Congress reached a budget impasse that shut down the federal government from the 14th to the 19th the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Sent home to ponder their future were 800,000 "non-essential" employees. Although the shutdown lasted only a few days, ironically it may have served as a dress rehearsal for thousands of employees at government agencies such as the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy, both of which have been targeted for elimination by the Republican Congress. Even though workers returned to their jobs, the continued threat of downsizing must have many wondering, "Will I be next?"


In 1979, Loretta Stewart was a single mother and part-time student at a local community college when she went to work at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif., as a temporary summer hire. When offered a full-time position, she gladly accepted, believing that government employment would enable her to learn valuable skills and move up the ranks without a college degree. "I chose that option thinking that I wouldn't have to worry about employment until retirement," says Stewart. "Now I'm learning that's not always true - although I believe it was then."

Move up the ranks she did. During her 15 years at Mare Island, Stewart advanced from minimum-wage worker trainee to computer specialist earning $42,000 a year and survived two reductions in force before the shipyard became slated for closure in 1994. "I still wanted to have faith that I could find a permanent job and remain in government," she recalls. In February 1995, Stewart made a lateral move to the Environmental Protection Agency, where she was able to transfer her years of service. But less than a year later, Stewart's job is once again in jeopardy.

Like most agencies, the EPA had to wait until the President and Congress resolved their budget impasse before it could know what appropriations it would receive Congress for fiscal year 1996. The agency could face cuts of up to 25% to 30%. Others, like the Departments of Commerce and Energy, face possible extinction. "If we have to make greater cuts faster, agencies aren't going to have any options of attrition. They won't be able to wait for people to leave voluntarily," says Green. "Minorities and women will be placed in a precarious position because they'll have the least seniority by and large."

African Americans currently make up 16.8% of the federal workforce; about one-third of them hold clerical jobs. According to Yvonne Scruggs, a director at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, employees in these admittedly more dispensable positions will be disproportionately represented in layoffs because they often have the least amount of tenure. Under union rules, when a reduction in force occurs, an employee with high seniority can avoid being laid off by retreating into a lower-grade employee's position. The practice, commonly known as "bumping," often ends up bumping lower-level employees out of a job. "You know how we all used to have clerical help?" Green laments. "Now we all have PCs."

Federal workers aren't the only ones standing under the downsizing cloud. Local government workers feel threatened as well. Since December 1994, New York City has cut approximately 11,000 government jobs. And state comptroller H. Carl McCall predicts that a stagnant economy coupled with significant tax cuts will force additional reductions in both expenditures and the workforce. "It is clear, given the fact that layoffs are among people unprotected by civil service, [where] you have a higher proportion of minorities, [they] will be disproportionately affected."

In the predominantly black city of Washington, a well-publicized financial crisis has forced local government to eliminate 3,387 positions in 1995. The city has also been ordered by Congress to cut an additional 6,000 positions in 1996. And those who have not yet lost their jobs had to accept a 6% salary cut. "Morale is low," says city administrator Michael Rogers. "Everyone has had to participate in the sacrifice."

Barbara Lee, a state assemblywoman in California, agrees. Four rounds of base closures in her state will yield a loss of about 100,000 on-base jobs, producing an adverse effect on the local economy as well as on private sector defense companies. "We have many, many workers whose lives are shattered," says Lee.


According to Bernard Anderson, assistant secretary of labor for employment standards of the U.S. Department of Labor, it's not all gloom and doom. Despite a reduction of 1,200 in the department's workforce, there was no change in the department's statistical profile with respect to race and gender because more whites took advantage of the buyouts than minorities. "In fact, the profile for those persons in the higher grade levels was relatively better with respect to minority participation," says Anderson. He concedes, however, that Labor is probably not typical of other federal government agencies.

Despite base closures across the country, Undersecretary of Defense Edwin Dorn says the Department of Defense has managed to avoid the problem of disproportionate minority layoffs. "We've offered rather attractive buyout incentives to retire early. Those who've been in longest are disproportionately white and male, [and they] benefit more from those buyout incentives," he says. As a result, the representation of women and minorities in the DOD civilian labor force is about the same now as it was when we began the draw down in the late 1980s.

To cushion the impact of base closings, a major initiative in the state of California has been developed to help firms that have historically provided defense products and services convert their technologies for peaceful domestic purposes, such as environmental cleanup, biotechnology and the manufacture of electric cars. Thus, jobs lost because of base closures are replaced.

"I chair the select committee on defense conversion," says Lee, "so I've been very involved in making sure the state has a plan to prepare communities for the transition, as well as to make sure there are funds and programs for workers who lose their jobs to be retrained immediately." Companies interested in training information or in learning how to participate in defense conversion activities should call Chris Holden at the California Trade and Commerce Agency, 916-324-9777.

Buyouts are currently limited to DOD employees, but after the budget mess is settled, many agencies will have early-out authority through September 1996. Another option, although not a buyout, is that employees who are at least 50 years old with 20 years of service, or any age with at least 25 years of service, are eligible for early retirement. Anyone under 55, however, will have to take a 2% pension reduction for each year that they are younger that 55. If you do not have the requisite age or years of service, take advantage of any training opportunities you can. The Office of Personnel Management has been offering different types of training so people can prepare to move into positions at other agencies. It is also working with the White House to ensure that laid-off employees et first crack at those vacancies. The positive side of people leaving the government due to early retirement or buyouts is that they create some critical vacancies that must be filled, which creates professional opportunities for other people to move into, notes Green.


Analysts suggest that the federal workforce reductions may indeed help the careers of some employees who may, have felt stymied by older supervisors who seemed content to remain in their jobs for life. As older workers move out through early retirement, younger workers will have opportunities for advancement. The most aggressive workers with seniority and the right political ties should come out big winners.

Positions in the professional, administrative and technical series of federal jobs have increased 5% in the last ear, while clerical jobs have decreased significantly. So a willingness to perform new and additional tasks will be critical for those who intend to keep their job. Employees in lower grades should view training as an opportunity to become more versatile. At the Office of Personnel Management, for example, employees will be expected to become generalists who can perform multiple job functions.

Look for the hot spots. "You tend to find a larger proportion of black employees in those agencies that are concerned with domestic policies," says the Department of Labor's Anderson. "If there are sharp cuts in agencies such as Health and Human Services, Education and Labor, you will find more black people losing their jobs." These are the exact agencies that are high tip on the Republican revolution's hit list. Agencies that deal with medicine and science, engineering, finance, high technology, and law enforcement are less vulnerable.

Be willing to relocate, advised experts at a recent Office of Personnel Management career transition seminar, and the joint Center's Scruggs concurs. "People have to go where the career opportunities are. They cannot hold onto past roots in communities where their best interests are not being served by the job market."


Government employees aren't used to seeing agencies or jobs disappear and may be reluctant to explore options in the private sector. But as those who attended the Office of Personnel Management seminar were warned, although some agencies are "in denial," downsizing will soon proceed at an accelerated pace. This is also true at the state level. Opportunities in New York state, for example, are quite limited, and McCall doesn't see any growth areas. "If you look at the numbers, realism suggests that we shouldn't be steering people toward the public sector. We should be encouraging them toward private sector opportunities," which in New York have increased by 25,600 new jobs during the first nine months of 1995, he says.

So what do you do when Uncle Sam no longer wants you? Employees who face layoffs are advised to look at careers in private corporations in which they have a personal interest. Do the research, says Green, and the Office of Personnel Management will help employees make contact at those companies. "We're not just letting workers go. We help them from the time they receive a notice of separation until the time they actually leave." Success clearly depends on an employee's skill, flexibility and a willingness to work as hard on a job search as he or she does each day at work.

Many members of the black community who grew up believing that government was a key to the fulfillment of hopes and dreams will, like the Department of Labor's Anderson, continue to believe that public service is an honorable pursuit. "I always had a very, different view about the role of government than is typical, I guess, of many people in the country today," says Anderson. "Now, with government declining at all levels, it's necessary for people to rethink that."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Industry Overview; Careers & Business opportunities; includes tips on moving to the private sector
Author:Jones, Joyce
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Previous Article:Is an M.D. worth it any more?
Next Article:The lure of temp-ing: why temping might be your best route to success.

Related Articles
Building a career with a future.
Is the 'good life' good anymore? African Americans are continuing to redefine what it means to live well.
Big metro areas are still the best places to live and work.
Deeds over dollars: the corporate roller coaster has left many professionals in its wake. One route out of the chaos: the nonprofit sector.
Cutting through the chaos: highly skilled, multiple taskmasters will dominate the ever-changing workplace.
Job feast or famine?
Leading the way: how African American businesses can help alleviate unemployment for blacks.
A Few Good Men.
Setting your career in motion: after several years of experience, mid-level professionals get ready for the next move. (Career Management Part 2 Of A...
An about-face: young blacks and Latinos who enlist in the military for skills and training are still getting turned away by employers.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters