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Federal careers losing their luster for young, ‘nonessential’ workers

Inside his dark, windowless office, lit only by a string of Christmas lights, Matt Linton, 33, loves working as a “digital firefighter,” battling hackers from all over the world inside NASA’s research labs in Silicon Valley.

But this week, the “cybersecurity guy,” with a mohawk tinged pink and orange, is having coffee with two of the nine private industry recruiters who tried to lure him away while he was furloughed during the government’s partial shutdown this month. They have offered $30,000 more in pay and the promise of “never being called nonessential again.”

“No matter how much you love your job, everybody has their limits, their price,” said Linton, who grew up in Frederick, Md. “If Congress wanted to force young people out of federal jobs, then they are doing a great job.”

Disillusioned by furloughs and worried about budget cuts and pay freezes, many young federal employees such as Linton say that they can’t help but look toward the door.

The government and private companies alike are vulnerable to the departure of younger employees because they often have high-tech skills that are much in demand and they are willing to jump at new opportunities. While a government job still remains attractive to many, the continuing turbulence of federal work has made the government a less competitive employer.

Mid-career civil servants are voicing many of the same complaints as their younger co-workers and share the same apprehension about the prospect of more shutdowns. But it is employees in their 20s and 30s who are finding it easier to secure private-sector employment in the sluggish job market, because they tend to be paid less and can more easily move to new cities.

They are souring on government work just when they are needed most, experts say. The federal government is amid a retirement wave, with nearly twice as many executive branch employees leaving in the past fiscal year than did in 2009, according to federal figures.

“The shutdown was the perfect storm in turning millennials off from a career in government,” said Jason Dorsey, 35, chief strategy officer at the Center for Generational Kinetics, a private consulting group. “They are already everything the government is not: fast-moving, restless for change, and entrepreneurial. So the shutdown was just one huge slap in the face, a wake-up call that said, “Why am I working here again?”

No one has compiled statistics on the number of federal workers quitting their jobs or looking to do so. But public employees say the chorus of dissatisfaction among young people is reaching record decibels.

Linton had a “soul-searching” talk with his wife about whether he should leave. He said the typical starting salary for a comparable job in private industry is about $155,000, the maximum he could make working for the federal government. He earns $122,000, but he said the money doesn’t go far because the cost of living is high in California and his wife is staying home to raise their 6-year-old daughter.

“For the first week [of the shutdown] I was saying, well, I work for NASA with such brilliant people, doing great things for our country, and that’s the trade-off because I am happy,” said Linton. “But at the end of the second week, I thought, we only have one income. I really should hear what the recruiters have to say.”

Even before the shutdown, young people like Linton were leaving government jobs faster than previous generations. Millennials, who entered the job market amid widespread layoffs and high unemployment, say they don’t assume they’ll “get jobs for life” in any institution.

By contrast, mid-career federal employees, who often have higher salaries, better hours and pensions to think about, are less likely to depart.

Lee Stone works with Linton at NASA. A scientist who studies the impact of space travel on human performance, Stone is in his early 50s and is faced with paying for college for his two children.

“Obviously, I can’t take the kind of risks that young people can take,” he said.

But more important, Stone said, he is committed to the work of his agency.

“I would have to give up my life’s pursuit to allow humans to spend more time in space, and all the goals that my generation aspired to,” he said, adding that he was inspired by “the reality of Apollo, the fantasy of ‘Star Trek’ and the call to service of John F. Kennedy.”