What I Learned from Working for the Government

Robert Hruzek at Middle Zone Musings has instigated a group writing project. The rules for the project can be found at What I Learned from … The topic has to relate to the world of work.

In my first two jobs after college, I worked for the government. First, I worked at a military base as an inventory manager for crankshafts for an aircraft that was an important part of the Air Force at the time. Then I found a job related to my degree in sociology, as an employment counselor for the state employment commission working in the federal government program back in they heyday of the War on Poverty.

I learned similar lessons in both of those jobs. The specific things I learned about working for the government also apply to life in general.

  1. Many workers take advantage of the Civil Service system that makes it difficult (impossible?) to fire incompetent workers. In the Civil Service job with the Air Force, I was given more responsibility in my first year on the job than some of the workers who were nearing retirement. When someone else made a serious mistake, that person was given easier work, and the botched-up job was turned over to me or another of the workers who took our jobs seriously. Government employees aren’t the only workers who don’t always give their best; many people do the least they can get by with.
  2. Many supervisors are too willing to cover up problems rather than take any risks. As an inventory manager, I noticed a pattern of increasing condemnation rate of crankshafts when engines were overhauled. I raised questions, but my supervisors told me just to accept the failure rates turned in by the government contractors and request additional funds to purchase of the $5,000+ items (in late 1960s dollars). As an employment counselor, I suspected applicants were trying to get into the government program (which paid a small stipend while the “hard-core unemployed” were receiving training to improve their employability). My boss told me we weren’t authorized to investigate – we had to take the applicant’s word for everything. We’ve seen lots of cases of corruption in business, education, and just about any field you can name because leaders or peers don’t want to get involved or are afraid to rock the boat.
  3. One determined (also known as stubborn) person can make a difference. I raised enough questions to enough people (and other determined people with their own suspicions were doing the same thing) that, unbeknownst to me at the time, the FBI launched an investigation of the engine overhaul facility. The owners of the facility and the government inspectors there were indicted and convicted of condemning crankshafts in good condition and selling them to Israel. In the poverty program, in spite of my boss’s instructions, I was able to find evidence of fraud by several applicants who used phony names and experience to get in the program more than once simply to draw the stipend, with no intention of ever going to work. I refused to admit them to the program. There are always people willing to stand up for what they believe in any situation, and they can make a difference.
  4. Some people don’t like to have their plans thwarted; some just have no respect for the law or the rights of others. I had my life threatened by one applicant that I turned away from the program. He said he would be waiting for me at the end of the day with his “piece” – my boss sent me home early, and the guy never came back. Another time, the wife of one of the counselees came to the office asking to see me, but when the receptionist saw a gun in her purse, the manager told her I wasn’t there. Once again, she never came back. Our office was located in the block that was notorious for having the highest crime rate in the city, and my car was broken into and vandalized. All of our offices had openings rather than doors that closed so we wouldn’t ever be alone with the clients. Crime exists everywhere, and the world can be a dangerous place.
  5. Many of the “hard-core” unemployed have serious problems that interfere with their ability to work. I was working in the poverty program in a minority neighborhood around the end of Vietnam War. I saw way too many young men who came back from the war with serious mental problems and many more addicted to drugs. We were supposed to be working only with people ready to go to work, but since we weren’t allowed to access records or ask for any documentation, young men told us they had no problems only to demonstrate their problems almost immediately. One disturbed young man didn’t show up for class all week, and when he came to pick up his check on Friday, he was required to report to me for counseling. He told me had been to Houston to try to get his wife to come back to him – she had left him because he didn’t have a job or any money. Based on the behavior I had observed in the short time he had been in the program, I was sure she left him because he was mentally unstable. I referred him for counseling; it was late on Friday afternoon, and his appointment was early Monday morning. That Friday night, he went to a fast food restaurant right after closing. He had worked at the restaurant for a short time, and when he knocked on the back door, the manager let him in. He pulled a knife, slashed the throat of the manager, and stole the day’s receipts. The manager lived, and though he couldn’t talk, he identified his attacker in writing. I seemed to be the last person to see this troubled man before the robbery, so I was interviewed about his state of mind. I didn’t have to testify in court because he was sent to the state hospital for the criminally insane as a result of a plea bargain. People like him needed more and different help than our program was equipped to give them. The world is filled with people with serious physical and emotional problems that need treatment, not a handout.
  6. Even programs that are supposed to be for the benefit of people in need don’t always serve the needs of those they are designed to serve. All of the participants in the poverty program went through a two-week training program on how to find and act on a job – employability training, it was called. During that time, the counselor and the client created an employability plan for the client to reach his or her goals. Unfortunately, specific job training classes were scheduled based on funding. We had to fill the classes when they were held, and we couldn’t offer training when there wasn’t a class. If an auto mechanic’s class was scheduled, we were pressured to come up with students, whether or not we had anyone who had the interests and aptitudes for that career. And if a few months later, we had an ideal candidate for auto mechanic’s training but there was no class … too bad. That person either got no training or had to fit into a different slot. One time, everything seemed to come together. A class in clerical training was being offered, and I had three ideal candidates. One was a Vietnam vet who had returned from war addicted to drugs but who had been through a program and was clean and sober as well as being very intelligent, extremely interested in working in an office, and highly motivated. Another was a welfare mother who had been through a series of medical problems and surgeries but was now in good health and eager to build up her minimal clerical skills to be able to support her children on her own. The third was a high school dropout who had gotten his GED and had an excellent work history in unskilled jobs who was ready to learn skills to advance to a more secure future. I spent time with each one, telling them that in spite of the challenges they had faced in life, things were now changing for the better. They were all excited and ready to improve their lives. Then on the Friday before the training started on Monday, the funding was pulled from the class. No explanation – just a message to inform the students they wouldn’t be getting training after all. Although I was not typically defiant, I flatly refused to break that disheartening news. I told my boss he would have to tell them because there was no way I was going to go to them and tell them to forget I’d told them their life was changing for the better. My boss did talk to the clients for me … and I decided I could no longer stay in this position because I believe we helped too few people and damaged too many. Good intentions don’t always translate to effective programs, actions, or laws.
  7. In spite of flaws and inefficiencies, sometimes we made a difference … and every time we made a difference, we made the world a little better. I had one client who had worked for one company for several years but had been out of work for quite a while after her employer went out of business. One day she didn’t show up for class, and later in the day I got a phone call. She was in jail, arrested for probation violation. That was a shock, because I had no idea she was on probation. It turns out that she had been convicted of marijuana possession and been given probation (five years if I remember right). She had failed to report to her probation officer once – I don’t remember why. But then she was afraid to report the next time because she feared she’d be arrested for not reporting the last time. So she just quit reporting. She had not been in hiding – she had lived at the same address and had worked for one company for several years. Then about a month before her probation ended, while she in our program trying to get back into the workforce, she was arrested. While I certainly don’t condone her failure to report to her probation officer, I could see no reason to throw a productive member of society who had stayed out of trouble during her probationary period in jail. I was determined she wasn’t going to go to prison for five years. I contacted the state representative for her district, and he and I went to visit her in jail, and I went to court and testified on her behalf. She was released, given credit for successful completion of her probation, and placed in a job. Even if there were more failures than successes, I’m thankful for the successes we did have. No matter how small, any time we help someone in need or stand up for what we believe, we make the world a little better.

And that’s what I learned from working for the government.

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