Welles: California hangs a vacancy sign

Federal job openings are plentiful in the state because of high housing costs and low locality pay

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That saying is true in more ways than one in California, where wildfires rage and many critical federal jobs, such as firefighter positions in Angeles National Forest, go unfilled.

Federal vacancies are numerous elsewhere in California, including in the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection division at major ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles. In addition, law enforcement positions that are needed to control the drug trade and cybercrime remain unfilled.

One reason for the vacancies is that federal salaries are much lower than for comparable jobs at, for example, state and county fire departments. Federal law enforcement officers are paid 38 percent to 50 percent less than their local counterparts. Federal employees are in short supply in California, partly because of retirements that are beginning to affect government agencies at all levels. Replacements are not surfing that retirement wave, and succession planning is foundering. Another factor is the cost of housing, which outpaces locality pay in major California cities.

The Federal Executive Boards in San Francisco and Los Angeles produced a white paper last summer detailing the state’s recruitment and retention problems. The paper included recommendations for raising locality pay for high-cost areas.

But Bush administration officials have had other priorities, and locality pay has earned scant attention. Federal workers in regional offices — especially those who work on federal programs in cities outside regional centers — often feel neglected and overlooked by officials in Washington, D.C. That is the dark side of federal life in otherwise sunny Long Beach, Calif., where I spent a few days last month. The brighter side — in addition to lovely beaches and attractions like the Queen Mary — is the determination of federal managers to recruit and retain workers who can get important jobs done.

They use every hiring flexibility they can find, including retention and relocation bonuses, and they conduct extensive outreach efforts to recruit new hires. They focus on the flexibility and benefits of government work and offer training in important and needed skills.

Yet when university graduates apply for those jobs, the hiring process takes as long as six months. Regional managers cross their fingers in the hope that the recruits aren’t hired elsewhere first. Managers say they often post their openings on USAJobs, but they also look for other ways, including job fairs, to make their vacancies known. To find Web sites and jobs at federal agencies in the Los Angeles area, go to www.losangeles.feb.gov and click on “Employment.”

My impression of southern California is that it would be a great place to start out, move up or end up. It offers ample opportunities and recreational benefits for younger and older workers. If you’re considering a change, you might consider going westward ho!

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.