WASHINGTON — After enduring years of government downsizing and bureaucracy-bashing, Uncle Sam is discovering he's perilously low on federal workers.
Just three years from now, more than half of the federal workforce will qualify for retirement, including more than 70 percent of experienced, top employees known as career senior executives. At the same time, the war on terrorism is forcing the government to ramp up at a speed and to a degree unforeseen before the attacks of Sept. 11.
"What has been a quiet crisis risks becoming the perfect storm," says Max Stier of Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that is targeting young people and mid-career professionals for government work.
Working in the government's favor is that Americans' interest in serving the public has been rekindled since the Sept. 11 attacks. In addition, the White House, members of Congress, and even academia are trying to make federal jobs more competitive with the private sector - a huge task.
"I've never been more hopeful about the possibility for reform than right now," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here. "This is a moment in time. It's been 25 years since we've taken a comprehensive look at civil service."
Ironically, George W. Bush, who campaigned against big government in Washington, is now faced with increasing both federal spending and the size of government. Congress has approved $40 billion to reinforce the military and security, and pay for cleanup of the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
But it is asking for more. The Senate, for one, wants baggage and passenger screeners at airports to become federal employees. The US House and Mr. Bush prefer to have federal supervision of those duties, but to keep the workers in the private sector.
Still, there's little doubt that agencies need more qualified people to watch the borders, guard the airports, protect from biological and chemical terrorism, and gather intelligence.
By 2005, Mr. Light predicts, the federal workforce will grow by 500,000 to 1.5 million people, either new employees or people who work for private companies under contract to the government. A Brookings survey released last week shows that 59 percent of the "war on terrorism" workforce say they sometimes or rarely have enough staff to do their jobs.
But how to attract applicants when US agencies don't recruit at colleges and typically take six months to hire an employee?
Last month, Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio and Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland announced legislation that would give US agencies many private-sector tools to hire and keep good people. For instance, they propose that the federal government pay new recruits' college loans - tax free. They would give federal agencies power to shorten the time it takes to hire, and greater flexibility to approve pay raises.
The legislation overlaps with the Freedom to Manage Act, which Bush recently unveiled. Mr. Voinovich plans to merge the proposals.
In a positive sign, Ms. Morella notes, more than 34,000 people have applied to become US air marshals; about 2,700 federal retirees have inquired about returning to work; and more than 1,400 people have expressed interest in working for the FBI as linguists. But interest can fizzle, she warns, after people get a closer look at the slow hiring process, poor pay, and lack of clear career paths.
"We must act quickly," she says, "because a great nation can't rely on national emergencies to fill the ranks of its civil servants."