Uncle Sam's search urgent for workers in emergencies

Monday, November 5, 2001

WASHINGTON -- At least one-third of the federal emergency workers mobilized on Sept. 11 reach retirement age in five years, and an anxious Uncle Sam wants you to consider a career replacing them.

From college students to retirees, the government is using patriotism to appeal to Americans to fill depleting ranks of federal doctors, firefighters and structural engineers, among others.

The worries predate Sept. 11, stemming then from concerns over an aging work force -- average age 45. The attacks made the government's pleas more urgent.

"We need people who will rise to the occasion and respond to the need for public service NOW," the top government hirer tells college students in a letter.

If anyone misses the point, there is a new address for ex-federal workers who want to come back on board: patriotquestions@opm.gov.

"There is a recognition that this a challenge -- not a crisis, a challenge -- and the agencies are developing a number of different strategies," said Ellen Tunstall, assistant director for employment policy at the Office of Personnel Management.

One is the letter from OPM director Kay Coles James sent to campus newspapers across the country. The blitz was prompted by thousands of inquiries from students, the government says.

It is too soon to tell whether the appeals are working, but with the worst unemployment growth in two decades announced Friday, the field appears fertile.

Patriotic pitch

James casts her pitch in patriotic language that just weeks ago would have seemed as campus-friendly as a Tupperware party: "Our young people have realized there is no more important work -- no more NOBLE calling ... than the work of government."

That rhetoric apparently resonates with federal workers. A new Brookings Institution survey finds that 90 percent say they are proud of their work, while 60 percent expressed frustration with the government for not getting more staff on board.

James outlines the areas of need: FBI investigators, CIA agents, Centers for Disease Control epidemic monitors; Food and Drug Administration staffers who keep the blood supply clean; Federal Reserve Board analysts who watch for attacks on the banking system; Environmental Protection Agency monitors who are assessing the cleanup in New York.

The appeals are not just geared to college students. The government is opening doors for ex-employees, and waiving a requirement that returnees surrender part of their pensions.

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