20 Years in Club Fed: A Mixed Blessing

This week at a staff meeting my boss called me up to the front and presented me with a certificate and a pin. Apparently I’ve been employed with the federal government for twenty years. Instead of making me feel better, it just made me feel old and depressed.

Perhaps it’s not good to have these things happen so close to your birthday. I turn 46 tomorrow. But 20 years in anything is a long time. In actuality I left the federal government for about a year in 1987 and came back in early 1989. So while I started work in 1981 a few weeks before Ronald Reagan came into office, because I worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a while my “service computation date” is 1981, plus fifteen months or so. Sometime last year, probably in May, I hit the 20-year mark. The government being what it is, it took this long for me to get the obligatory certificate and pin.

Perhaps it doesn’t feel like 20 years because I’ve moved around. I started out as a lowly clerk typist for what was then the Defense Mapping Agency. In 1981 we were in recession and even a lowly clerk typist job was better than where I was at: selling lawn and garden stuff for Montgomery Ward. My friend Tim Bagwell from those Wards days who suggested I come to work for DMA. As miserly as the GS-4 wages were back then, they look liked a king’s ransom compared to my wages with Wards.

Things obviously improved since then. By the end of 1981 I was working as a production controller in the Graphic Arts Department as a GS-5. It was sort of related to my degree, which had been in communications;I had just never really studied printing. It was the Wang 2200T “calculator” (minicomputer) that we had the piqued my curiosity about all things computer related and I was soon using it and an Apple 2 Plus computer to manage my work. Every one else was using index cards. I had sort of liked the one programming course I had in college in the 70s, but it was such a pain to deal with punch cards and wait hours for jobs to be run that there was not much “fun” in the experience. A “real time” computer was a different story.

I took a COBOL course and used it to get an entry level programming job one floor up. I never looked back. My only deficiency was the lack of a degree in the field. I finally took care of that in the last half of the 90s when I went back to school and got a masters degree in software system engineering. Now I hardly ever touch a line of code, at least on the job. I do mostly project management stuff, which is not terribly inspiring. It does however pay well.

After being laid off by the Democrats and having scrambled on a contract for three months to make ends meet I ended back in Club Fed with the Air Force. I spent nine years toiling in the bowels (actually the third floor) of the Pentagon. I made minor and major changes to legacy budget systems written in PL/1 but eventually got put on a number of “cool” projects using something called a “client/server” architecture. And I guess I did well. In 1997 when that organization royally pissed me off and I shopped my resume within Club Fed, I was quickly picked up by HHS and here I am.

Things being what they are I wonder how much longer I will stay in Club Fed. The work is not terribly challenging, but at this point the benefits are good and the steady income stream is something I can appreciate after so many lean years. The biggest reason for me to stay though is not the money, but the time off. For the first time in my life I have the leisure to do things. I can take substantial chunks of time off and explore other areas of life, such as teaching. So I am grateful for the income (I am a GS-14) and I have often been proud of my accomplishments over the years too.

But the trend to replace federal workers with contractors seems to only be accelerating. There are really no cost savings to this contracting out business any more, but it is political anathema to suggest it. Politicians like the illusion that the government is shrinking when in fact it gets more and more bloated every year. So I may be offered an early out at some point, although 46 is probably way too early for such an offer. And then what will I do? I do know that by age 56 I could retire with a full pension should I so choose. And I probably will.

So the 20-year pin probably is just causing more denial of age feelings. I am sure I have plenty of company. I am sanguine now about the cost of completely following my heart. I work now not so much for the joy of having accomplished something significant, but to pay bills and provide for those I love. The current trends suggest that work for me will continue to be less and less interesting. But at some point, probably after I leave federal service, maybe work will become inspiring again.

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