The Government Goes Recruiting The U.s. Is Taking Aim At The Job Market

Posted: October 29, 1988

As a recruitment package aimed at college graduates, the brochures have the slick look of those produced by major corporations. Titled in letters of gold on covers colored navy blue, burgundy and gray, they tout an open door to opportunities ranging "from agronomy to zoology," excellent benefits, the lure of travel and access to the "latest technologies."

"Career America," says the raised lettering on the cover. "The U.S. Government. Find out why it's becoming the first choice."

Yes, Uncle Sam wants you, and it has nothing to do with wearing green fatigues. Faced with a study that shows the federal government getting left behind by private industry in the race for a dwindling number of college graduates to fill entry-level jobs, the government is preparing to take a major step back into the job market.

Some time next year, officials hope to begin administering a new series of hiring tests for federal jobs, the first since 1982, when the PACE tests were struck down by a federal judge for discriminating against minorities.

But under the proposal by the Office of Personnel and Management (OPM), the tests would be just one way for a prospective employee to enter government service. College graduates with grade-point averages above 3.0 on a 4.0 scale could be hired without taking the test. And an Individual Achievement Record examination would let those who do not meet the test or grade-point standards demonstrate how personal achievements and other experiences qualify them for federal work.

Although introduction of the testing program depends on OPM lawyers' successfully negotiating the issue with the lawyers who filed the 1982 suit, officials are wasting no time laying the groundwork for the new program.

On Thursday, OPM officials in Philadelphia briefed about 90 representatives of 35 colleges from the Middle Atlantic states and 23 federal agencies about the new program to make sure that the Class of 1989 finds out about the federal government as well as about IBM and Xerox.

For many, the conference, at the Federal Building at Sixth and Arch Streets, seemed like a reunion of old friends separated years before. It was not always an easy reunion. Some counsellors wondered why it was so difficult to get telephone numbers for federal officials and why there was no central source of information about jobs.

"The fact is that we were splintered," said Sally W. Williams, OPM area manager. "That made things very complex, and unfortunately, our explaining that complexity today didn't help make it any less complex."

But by the end of the day, OPM officials had agreed to make the conferences annual, to send recruiters to colleges that request them and to form an interagency committee to act as a clearinghouse for federal job information.

For the federal government, the massive hiring of college graduates for entry-level jobs virtually ground to a halt in August 1982 in the face of legal challenges and changes in political philosophy.

For almost half a century, the route to a federal job involved taking a standardized test, known since 1974 as the Professional and Administrative Career Examination, or PACE, that covered 118 federal jobs and was administered regularly. Those who passed the test were placed on a civil service list and moved up the list as federal jobs became available.

The test eventually drew complaints similar to those lodged against standardized intelligence and college-entrance tests - that they fail when they try to measure the intelligence and abilities of such minorities as blacks and Hispanics. In 1982, the test was challenged in court, and a federal judge ruled that it discriminated against minorities.

At the same time, the Reagan administration was moving to reduce the size of the federal government, and one of the cuts involved recruiting by federal agencies. Federal job centers were closed or, as in Philadelphia, turned into ''self-service centers" where job openings were simply posted on bulletin boards.

The result was a marked drop in applicants for federal jobs. "During this period of time, it was awfully hard for anybody to figure out how to get a federal job," said Williams. "When we eliminated recruiting, we lost touch with the public schools, the colleges and universities. About the only way you could find out was to call an agency you thought you might like to work for."

Indeed, federal entry-level hires dropped off from a high of about 25,000 annually during the 1960s to 5,000 to 10,000 annually since 1982, said Ed McHugh, a policy analyst with the OPM in Washington.

The incentive for the federal government to find a way out of the legal maze that resulted from the 1982 court decision came this summer in a report

sent to Congress by the OPM.

The report, "Civil Service 2000," was prepared by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. It said that by the turn of the century, current population trends will result in a "crisis of competence" in the federal government.

The national workforce, which grew at 2.9 percent annually through the 1970s, will expand by just 1 percent annually through the 1990s, the report said. More important, it noted, during the next decade the number of young workers aged 16 to 24 will drop by almost 8 percent nationwide and by as much as twice that in such states as Pennsylvania.

In that situation, the report said, the federal government could find it tough to compete with industry in hiring entry-level workers from the diminishing pool of college graduates, "particularly where high local wages make federal salaries unattractive."

"Unless steps are taken now to address the problem," the report said, ''the average qualifications and competence of many segments of the federal workforce will deteriorate, perhaps so much as to impair the ability of some agencies to function."

What the government at large is now proposing to do, some individual federal agencies have been doing for several years. Since 1982, while the OPM has struggled to come up with a successor to PACE, agencies that have needed entry-level professionals have been given the authority to hire them under such special exceptions as the "Outstanding Scholar" program, which lets agencies hire directly without testing people who graduated with an average of 3.5 or higher, or in the top 10th of their class.

One agency in Philadelphia that has aggressively hunted for entry-level employees is the General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings and property.

For the last two years, said GSA Regional Administrator George P. Cordes, the agency has hit the college job-fair circuit. Of 44 "trainees" hired during 1987, Cordes said, 40 are still with the agency, and the GSA has recruited another 40 this year.

For years, federal recruiters have had to fight the image of federal jobs as positions that offer poor pay and are professionally unchallenging. The entry-level GS-5 or GS-7 posts, which would include such jobs as investigator, budget analyst and management analyst, pay $15,118 and $18,726, respectively.

Cordes said he believes that last October's stock market crash and the

financial problems of so many large companies have made many graduates reconsider the U.S. government as an employer. He said that GSA recruiters have found "literally hundreds of kids who want to work for the government at the money we're offering."

"The atmosphere here is a lot more congenial, and I've really been challenged here," said Jeanette Bazis, 22, of Center City, who graduated with honors in May with a business degree from Temple University. Bazis said she discovered the GSA at the Operation Native Talent job fair last year.

Bazis, who is working as a personnel specialist in labor relations, said that her salary was competitive with those offered by several banks and that the training and work were superior.

"I've talked to my friends, and I know I've got a lot more responsibility given me right off the bat working here," she said.

Others want to work for altruistic reasons. Elizabeth Keegans, 23, of Lindenwold, graduated from Immaculata College last year with a degree in history and political science and saw working for the government as a way to

put the theory she had learned into practice.

"I've always wanted to work for the federal government," said Keegans, a program analyst with the GSA's budget division. "Somehow I just want to try to improve things a little bit. Maybe the person who comes after me can then advance things a little more."

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