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Now hiring, your Uncle Sam

Many Americans are finding opportunity, and security, on the growing federal payroll

Pat Greenhouse/Globe StaffKATE BENDERPrevious job: Wachovia Bank. New job: Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Pat Greenhouse/Globe StaffKATE BENDERPrevious job: Wachovia Bank. New job: Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / May 30, 2009
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At a time when many companies are shedding jobs at an alarming rate to survive the recession, one employer is still hiring: the federal government.

While the number of job openings in the private sector has dropped 4.6 percent since December 2007, hiring across federal agencies during the same time period has increased 2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In some ways, the economic decline has been a boon to the federal government. Agencies are seeing a dramatic increase in applicants, including some with blockbuster resumes who are willing to work for lower salaries. Many say they will trade a smaller paycheck in exchange for job security and good benefits, while others say they are answering President Obama's call for public service.

Kate Bender left the corporate world behind this week to become an executive at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. Bender, who previously worked at Wachovia Bank and has two master's degrees, is earning less in her new position (she won't say how much), but is nonetheless enthu siastic about the career shift.

"I wanted to focus on something with more meaning," Bender said. "And while the pay might not be the same, the benefits are much better."

Michael Orenstein, a spokesman for the US Office of Personnel Management, said job openings are only expected to grow as baby boomers in the workforce retire and federal stimulus dollars create new positions.

The number of positions advertised on www.usajobs.gov, a clearinghouse of federal job openings, has jumped 57 percent over the past two years to more than 47,000.

About 1,000 jobs within 100 miles of Boston were recently listed on the site, including postings for project managers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a "detention and removal assistant" at the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, and a tractor operator for the Parks Service at Minuteman Park in Concord.

"The government has thousands and thousands of opportunities for qualified men and women," Orenstein said. "We're looking for new talent and energy and people who desire to be in public service versus kneeling at the altar of the bottom line."

For many, however, working for the government is a career change that comes out of economic necessity.

The Massachusetts unemployment rate climbed to 8 percent in April, and by the middle of next year, when the labor market is expected to bottom out, it is projected that the state will have lost more than 200,000 jobs as a result of the recession.

The federal government can expand even in a down economy because it has the authority to increase the national deficit, such as funding a $787 billion economic stimulus package that will help create jobs.

That's in contrast to state government, which is required to balance its budget, and must lay off workers as tax revenues fall.

Many of the newly unemployed say they are rushing to federal government jobs because of the security they offer. The positions are generally unaffected by stock market swings and layoffs are relatively rare, said Paul Harrington, a labor economist at Northeastern University.

Working for Uncle Sam becomes "very attractive when other jobs dry up," said Harrington.

The Veterans Administration in Boston has seen a 30 percent increase in applications in recent months.

Human resources officials there said recently they have 18 job openings for social workers, 21 vacancies for psychologists, and 19 available clerical jobs.

John Colautti, a spokesman for the Federal Medical Center Devens, which is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the former Fort Devens military base, said stability has drawn in many new job candidates. The center is hiring, he said, and earlier this month had 10 openings for corrections officers, seven vacancies for nurses, and four for doctors.

Colautti said some of the jobs are highly specialized (such as a phlebotomist, someone trained in drawing blood) or difficult to fill (nurses in the center's sex offender treatment program).

"It's recession-proof employment," he said.

Karen Rezendes of Milton was laid off from her job in the office of an auto body shop in January, but a few months later she landed work at the VA's Job Information Center in Brockton.

She declined to disclose her salary, saying only that it was less than what she previously earned. But her work as a clerk guiding job seekers through the application process comes with a better retirement plan, including a 401(k) with a dollar-for-dollar match up to the first 3 percent of her contribution.

"They have excellent benefits," said Rezendes, a 44-year-old single mother. "The pay was a little lower, but it was more than I was making in unemployment."

Federal agencies have also stepped up recruiting on college campuses.

Angeles Garcia, who will graduate from Wellesley College next week, landed a job as a language assistant in the US Department of Justice's civil rights division, a newly created position in Washington, D.C.

She will defer her plans to attend the University of Houston law school for at least a year and start her new job on July 1. The pay is $18.74 an hour, or about $39,000 a year.

"I think I will really enjoy D.C. culture. I find it glamorous," the 22-year-old from Texas said. "I really just love everything about politics."

Glamour and government may not be a common refrain, but John Kroen, human resources director at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston said he's seen a huge surge in highly qualified applicants looking for jobs at the staid institution.

Kroen said he recently received a job application for an $80,000-a-year position from a man who recently lost his $500,000-a-year finance job in the private sector.

The private sector's loss appears to be the federal government's gain.

"You should see some of the professions of the applicants," Kroen said. "We're doing well in getting very, very top-notch people here."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.