Eric Chen thought he knew what he wanted to do once he received his master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. His plan was to continue working at the university’s hospital in the artificial heart program or get a job in private industry for a heart device manufacturer.
But in early 2002, just months before he was scheduled to graduate, Chen’s plans changed after he met an official from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at a conference. The associate director of the division that regulates cardiovascular devices asked Chen if he had ever considered working at the FDA.
The two started talking jobs, and eventually Chen landed one at the FDA. Five years later, he’s still at the agency, where he is a team leader reviewing applications from manufacturers seeking to market artificial hearts and ventricular assistance devices.
“Working for the FDA was not on my radar screen,” recalls Chen, who was recently named the FDA’s engineer of the year. “Similar to a lot of my friends, I thought the FDA only regulated food and drugs. I didn’t realize that the devices I was working with were looked at by the FDA.”
Chen’s decision to work for the federal government is unusual among newly minted college graduates these days, especially those in science and engineering. Simply put, the prestige of working for the federal government is not what it used to be.
For decades, some of the nation’s brightest scientific minds competed for jobs in the federal government, attracted by opportunities to pursue cutting-edge research at the Defense Department, the Naval Research Laboratory, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But today, many college graduates view federal agency jobs as simply pushing paper in a faceless bureaucracy, not as creative or challenging. In addition, the security of government work does not stack up against the pay and perks of private industry.
This decline in interest comes at a time when two converging forces have the potential to turn the government’s recruiting problems into a full-blown crisis. According to many estimates, America’s universities are not turning out enough engineers or physical scientists to meet the demands of industry, let alone the government. And in coming years, baby boomer scientists and engineers employed by federal agencies are projected to retire in droves.
The numbers are staggering: About 60 percent of the federal government’s rank-and-file workers and 90 percent of its top managers will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years. It is also estimated that 60 percent of employees across the federal government are over 45 years old, compared to only 30 percent in the private sector. That means greater numbers of workers will be looking at retirement in the next few decades, leaving a considerable gap.
Filling that gap is not going to be easy. Baby boomers make up a much larger share of the U.S. population than the under-30 Generation Y-ers, who make up only 25 to 16 percent. In addition, engineering enrollments at American colleges have been declining for the past two years, and graduation rates are expected to soon follow.
At some government agencies, the graying of the workforce is more pronounced than at others. That’s especially true for those employing large numbers in technical fields. For every scientist and engineer at NASA under 30, there are nearly three over 60. And by 2010, half of the researchers at the nation’s defense labs—which employ more scientists and engineers than any other government agency—will be eligible for retirement. That number is projected to increase to 60 percent by 2012.
The government already has several programs in place to encourage a new generation of workers, including bonuses, loan forgiveness, scholarships, and a streamlined hiring process. But the biggest problem is perhaps more difficult to fix: the federal government’s negative image as an employer.
A 2006 Gallup survey prepared for the Council for Excellence in Government found “a serious mismatch between what people want in a job and their perception of what government offers.” In particular, it revealed that people interested in science and engineering valued “intellectual stretch” over other workplace values, such as job security and benefits—but that few believe that federal jobs possess this quality. When it comes to innovation and creativity, “the federal government is not perceived to be nearly as challenging as the private sector,” says the council’s president, Patricia McGinnis, who adds, “I’m not sure that’s true.” McGinnis addressed the subject during a forum held in Washington, D.C., last spring to discuss how to attract the best and brightest to science and technology federal jobs.
Ways to Attract Talent
Sonna Patel agrees with McGinnis. A colleague of Eric Chen’s at the FDA, Patel points out that her government work is much more challenging than the private-sector job she held before getting her master’s degree and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia.
“There are many different roles for me to play at the FDA,” Patel says. “One day I can be working on artificial organs for the kidney and the next day on artificial organs for the heart.”
Patel was recruited by Chen after they met at a conference in Japan. In the often complicated and time-consuming government-hiring process, such personal connections are key to dispelling preconceived notions of what it is like to work for the government. They can also assist those who want to get a foot in the door. The University of Pittsburgh has placed nearly a dozen of its bioengineering graduates at the FDA over the past several years with the help of a senior agency administrator who teaches ethics at the university.
“It helps if you have someone who is encouraging and welcoming to you, rather than just trying to fill out some enormous form on the Internet,” says Harvey S. Borovetz, chairman of Pitt’s bioengineering department. “The employment forms from the FDA are a bit challenging. They ask lots and lots of questions.”
Obviously, given the sheer number of people who work for the government, recruiting employees one by one is not feasible. But now, federal departments are increasingly turning to hiring methods that have long been practiced by private employers, such as ensuring a strong presence at college campus job fairs. Sean O’Keefe, who recently stepped down as chancellor of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, says he noticed a wider range of federal agencies at career events on campus last spring. “The CIA was even here with a sign,” O’Keefe says with a laugh.
O’Keefe, a former NASA administrator, believes that college students are still inclined to pursue public-service jobs. He points to the days following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when hundreds of LSU students filled the bleachers of the campus arena, waiting to volunteer at a medical evacuation site that had been set up there. “No one was paying them,” he notes.
Yet, according to O’Keefe, unless students know about the types of government jobs available, they will look elsewhere. He and other government experts have argued that public-sector agencies must improve their sales pitch when it comes to communicating the various paths of entering their workforce and the pay and benefits offered—all of which could help attract recent college graduates.
Engineers needed everywhere
The federal government employs more engineers than almost any Fortune 500 company. Today, more than 80,000 engineers are work for the government, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Three engineering occupations—electronics engineering, general engineering, and engineering technology—rank among the 20 largest white-collar professions in the civilian federal workforce.
Just about every agency employs engineers. A look at recent job openings gives a flavor of the types of engineering work available within the government. The Department of Transportation was searching for an electrical engineer to assist in designing and developing equipment for air-traffic control. The Department of Energy was looking for a civil engineer to inspect non-federal hydroelectric projects to ensure safety and compliance with the Federal Power Act. And the Patent and Trademark Office needed a patent examiner with a background in electrical and computer engineering.
For those unsure as to whether government service is right for them, several agencies offer short-term stints. The National Science Foundation operates a rotational assignment program in which scientists from outside of the government work for the NSF for one to two years. At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, new employees can enter a two-year program that allows them to experience a variety of jobs before settling into one position. And the prestigious Presidential Management Intern program annually places nearly 800 recent graduates in agencies throughout the government for two years, after which they are eligible for permanent employment.
Departments with specific needs for scientists and engineers are also taking a page from private-sector recruiters by offering targeted benefits. Two of NASA’s centers, the Kennedy Space Center and the Johnson Space Center, operate a program that repays student loans for certain employees as long as they commit to working for the agency for a specified number of years. The Army pays full salary and education benefits to employees who work 30 hours a week and attend graduate classes for the other 10 hours. At the FDA and several other federal offices, certain employees can telecommute to their jobs.
“The government offers a flexible lifestyle that you appreciate more after you’ve been in the private sector,” comments Patel, the FDA bioengineer. Government salaries are also much more competitive with the private sector than most outsiders realize, she adds. What it comes down to is that “we need to do a better job of selling the government when we recruit.”
All the same, agencies like the FDA have to have prospective employees to recruit. A huge obstacle confronting the public sector as it seeks to replace the rush of retiring scientists and engineers is the reduced pipeline of qualified college graduates.
“The government can’t hire people that aren’t there,” O’Keefe says. “The public sector’s problem in filling these jobs is part of a much larger issue facing the U.S.—what are we going to do to get more Americans studying science, technology, and math?”
Several of the federal government’s science-and-engineering-focused agencies, including NASA, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the NSF, operate education divisions dedicated to developing this next generation of researchers. And while the divisions’ programs are designed to encourage students to pursue public- or private-sector careers in the science, technology, engineering, and math “STEM” fields, the unstated goal of many such programs is to inspire young people to join the federal workforce.
Education programs take place at almost every grade level. NASA, for example, selects some two dozen elementary and secondary schools each year for its Explorer Schools project, a three-year partnership that provides educators and students with content-specific activities and grant money to buy technology tools. The Office of Naval Research sponsors the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, an academic competition for high school students throughout the country on topics related to the study of oceans. Prizes include cruises on research vessels and visits to oceanographic institutions around the world.
“Our overall philosophy is that we have students connecting to our content,” says Joyce Winterton, NASA’s assistant administrator for education. “They see an example, it’s real-world research and programs. That gives meaning to their education.”
After students develop a penchant for science and engineering in middle and high school, the government’s education programs take on a different focus: funding for college and graduate school. Each year, thousands of students are supported through scholarships, fellowships, and internships sponsored by federal agencies.
While university officials praise these agency programs, several have raised concerns about a new governmentwide student-aid program aimed at encouraging low-income students to major in STEM fields. Created by Congress in 2005, the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retaining Talent (SMART) grants mark the first time that lawmakers have linked need-based aid to specific academic programs. Early results suggest that the grants are meeting with limited success.
Only 4 percent of low-income students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants, the nation’s largest need-based grant program, have qualified for a SMART grant or a companion program open to students who take a specific set of rigorous courses. As a result, nearly 20 percent of the $182.2 million earmarked for the program in 2007 went unused as of this past summer.
Among the recipients, the No. 1 major was life sciences. More than 18,000 students majoring in the life sciences received an average grant of $3,000. While engineering ranked second, with 11,000 students and an average award of $2,900, the number of recipients is still much too low. Higher-education leaders blame the poor results on the fact that the awards are limited to full-time students who are also U.S. citizens. They argue that these restrictions need to be relaxed in order to encourage greater participation.
(Another federal program, which ASEE helps manage, also carries the SMART acronym. It stands for Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation, a scholarship program established by the Department of Defense to support undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in STEM disciplines.)
How Real is the Shortage?
Despite the government’s concern, not everyone is convinced of a dearth of scientists and engineers on the horizon. Indeed, a 2004 RAND Corp. study, Will the Scientific and Technology Workforce Meet the Requirements of the Federal Government? concluded that this projected shortage of federal STEM workers is not supported by the data.
Calling government findings about its workforce “less than satisfactory,” the study’s authors argued that several indicators “suggest that the situation will not be bad as people think.” For one, the workforce statistics for federal agencies include only civil-service employees who are eligible for retirement, while excluding government contractors, who tend to be younger. The RAND study also found that federal employees generally retire four to six years after becoming eligible for retirement and that STEM workers retire later than do other federal employees.
Aside from highlighting the need for the government to improve the data it collects on employees, the RAND study raised a key problem in any attempt to make projections about future workforce needs: the unpredictability of human behavior. The researchers point out, for example, that with Americans living longer, many may simply decide to work longer than they had planned.
The RAND findings are supported by the more recent 2007 Urban Institute report Into the Eye of the Storm, which disputes predictions of an impending shortage of technology workers in the general U.S. population. It’s all part of the larger debate—and concern—over America’s future in science, technology, and engineering. Where the Jobs Are, a publication of the Partnership for Public Service, estimates that between 2007 and 2009 the government will need to hire nearly 11,000 engineers. The biggest need is for electronics engineers in the Department of Defense.
The uncertainty of the situation is keeping government agencies busy encouraging future applicants. “All our estimates are based on assumptions,” says Patricia Gruber, director of research at the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Research Laboratory, which employs 1,700 scientists and engineers. “So we just need to keep focused on building the pipeline of potential workers. Whether they come work for the government or not is, in some ways, besides the point. There are only positives about having a more educated scientific workforce.”
Engineering educators say it would help if the government were to publish a list of its specific future employment needs. “From our contacts in the corporate world, we have a good idea of what kinds of engineers they need, but we don’t get the same information from the federal government,” says David C. Munson Jr., dean of the college of engineering at the University of Michigan.
A new Generation of STEM Workers?
One of the federal government’s future engineers may be Emily Smith, a junior computer-engineering major at the University of Pittsburgh. While holding a federal co-op job last summer, Smith gained a much more positive impression of the government than she had going in to the job.
“A lot of people now get frustrated with the government,” says Smith, who admits that the process of securing her job was “lengthy,” with forms and a months-long security check. But the job itself was more varied than a position she had considered at a private-sector company, which would have simply involved work on voice-recognition software. In addition, Smith feels that her work with the government had a benefit for society and didn’t just serve the bottom line. “That’s one advantage the government will always hold over almost any private company,” she says. Indeed, as America strives to maintain its position as a leader in science and technology, a new generation of workers may choose government work out of a sense of civic responsibility. “It may sound like a cliché,” says Smith, “but I feel what I’m doing is making a difference.”
Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington.
More information on U.S. government scholarship and fellowship programs geared to engineering, science, and math is available online at these ASEE websites: www.asee.org/seap, http://asee.org/smart/, www.asee.org/nasaasp, www.asee.org/nreip, www.asee.org/ndseg, www.nsfgradfellows.org, www.nsf.gov/eapsi, www.asee.org/sffp, www.asee.org/summer, http://asee.org/fellowships