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Friday, October 11, 2013

Some Young Civil Servants Begin To Look For A Way Out

The Lincoln Memorial pictured on October 1, 2013. (NPCA/Flickr)

The Lincoln Memorial pictured on October 1, 2013. (NPCA/Flickr)

With the government shutdown in its second week, some furloughed federal employees are cutting back on their spending and others are dipping into savings.

Some are thinking about getting into a new line of work all together.

Leah Phifer works for the Department of Homeland Security in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and she says after three years of government service that’s seen the shutdown, sequester, furloughs and pay freezes, she is ready for a new line of work.

  • Millennials: Are you considering not working for the federal government because of recent political gridlock or because you feel an inability for professional advancement? Tell us in our comments section.


  • Leah Phifer, works for the Department of Homeland Security



Well, while you may appreciate being up to speed always on the ongoing government impasse, it might be making cynics of even the most idealistic American right now. But what about young government workers whose idealism and enthusiasm drew them to public service in the first place?

Well, 29-year-old Leah Phifer works for the Department of Homeland Security in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And she says that after three years of government service that's seen a shutdown, a sequester, furloughs and pay freezes, political reality is undermining her idealism, and now she is ready for a new line of work.

She joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. And Leah, first of all just describe to us, how has the shutdown been for you financially?

LEAH PHIFER: Luckily I had some savings. I had saved up some money to buy a house. I was going to buy my first home, and I had some money saved up for a down payment and closing costs. And I finally had to dissolve that savings account just to pay my credit card bills this morning. So that was tough. But I'm lucky that I at least had that money tucked away.

CHAKRABARTI: Does that mean that your dream of buying a house is getting deferred?

PHIFER: It is, yes, it absolutely is. I've literally had to put everything on hold right now because I've dissolved my down payment savings account. I have no idea when I will feasibly be able to apply for a mortgage. I haven't had an income in the past couple weeks, and it's put everything on hold.

CHAKRABARTI: Right, now Leah, you're 29, is that right?

PHIFER: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so, I mean, the stories of financial hardship and uncertainty for people in your generation have been coming with alarming frequency over the past many months and years. What are your fellow young people who work in government - I don't know - I mean, what are they telling you? What are you guys talking about with each other?

PHIFER: Well, outside of the D.C. area, there isn't a large I should say millennial demographic in the federal government. A lot of my co-workers are of the baby boomer generation and older than I am. So a lot of them are going to stay in the government throughout this because they've invested so much time and so much of their career that they can't really afford to leave.

The few of us who are of an age where we are trying to advance our careers and move on are starting to clearly see that that's not going to be possible in the federal government at this point in history.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let me ask you - but let me ask you why. You don't think it's possible because of the older workers who aren't leaving or because it just doesn't feel as secure as you thought government work might be?

PHIFER: Well, the latter. It's not as secure as government work might be. Baby boomers are actually starting to leave the workforce. I had a co-worker who left about six or eight months ago, and I applied for her position, which would have been a promotion for me, but headquarters is not back-filling any positions.

So the baby boomers that are leaving and giving us some room to move up, the headquarters and the budget is not allowing us to move into those positions. So the work is there, but we're - our hands are tied.

CHAKRABARTI: Well let me ask you, so it sounds like because of this shutdown and the uncertainty that's come around because of it, is that the reason why you want to leave the Department of Homeland Security?

PHIFER: That's been sort of the straw that broke the metaphorical camel's back. I've actually been struggling with this ever since sequestration and pay freezes started to take effect that - the sequestration is mostly to blame for our inability to backfill positions. The shutdown and also the possible shutdown back in April of 2011, as well, were also very difficult and kind of highlighted the instability of working for the federal government right now. But the main catalyst has been the indiscriminate budget slashing that is - really has everyone in a panic and not filling positions whatsoever.

CHAKRABARTI: I see, because I wonder, someone might hear what you're saying and tell you on the other hand, you know, this budget slashing, as you call it, has been going on over the past couple of years but in the long run, government work is so much more stable and secure than just about any job in the private sector, which has been even more tumultuous over the past 25 years or so.

PHIFER: It's stable and secure if you don't mind remaining stagnant in your career progression. I mean, you can remain in your same position, and you might be furloughed, but you're allowed back, et cetera, but there's very little upward mobility in the federal government right now.

If you check the federal job posting boards, you'll see that job postings have greatly gone down in the past few years, especially since sequestration took effect. So I think for young people who are looking to progress in their career, that's the main concern is we're not at a point in our lives where we can afford to remain stagnant in our career path.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Leah, let me ask you: What first drew you to government work? And specifically you work for the Department of Homeland Security. What drew you to it?

PHIFER: Well, I had done a bachelor's degree in Spanish and French, and I was able to implement my foreign language skills in the Department of Homeland Security. And that is what initially drew me. But what kept me and what prompted me to go on to pursue a master's degree in public policy is really my love of public service and politics.

I find it absolutely fascinating, albeit frustrating of course, but I find the entire legislative process and how my work is directly affected by the way our democracy functions every day. And I find it fascinating, and it's a field that I'm proud to work in.

I'm actually heartbroken to even be considering leaving federal service, but like I mentioned earlier, I'm not at a juncture in my career where I can afford to just stay stagnant right now, and there's no upward mobility in the federal government currently.

CHAKRABARTI: I completely sympathize with your reasons and as you struggle to make this decision. But on the other hand, in hearing you describe what drew you to government work to begin with, your skill set, your love of public service, your belief in our democracy, your youth and idealism in general, I mean a lot of people might say that's exactly the kind of person we need to stay in government.

PHIFER: Yeah. And on the local, immediate level, my agency realizes that, and they have been incredibly supportive, but there's only so much they can do, and their hands have become increasingly tied by the budget factors and the, you know, political infighting that has gone on in Washington.

So I'm sure that no one within my agency would be surprised if I did move on, although they know it would be hard on me and them. And I'm afraid that this shutdown and everything that comes along with it is going to scare a lot of people my age away from the federal government.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Leah Phifer currently still works for the Department of Homeland Security. She is one of the furloughed federal employees there. She's in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Leah, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

PHIFER: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And you know, Robin, listening to Leah makes me wonder what other young government employees are thinking: park rangers or folks who work in research labs. If you're a young government worker, do you want to stay in public service? Let us know at


We're also following other news for you. Many thought Edward Snowden, the exiled leaker living in Russia, might be a frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize. Well, the prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But we'll get a sneak peek into the life of Snowden, also ask what's the Catholic view of the afterlife. These and other stories are later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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