While US job losses plunge, government grows

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
In a bad economy, people begin to look to Washington – not just for aid but for government jobs.

Want a stable future? Get a government job, especially a federal government job.

Good pay. Better benefits. And so far in this recession, a good place to park yourself, since every other employer seems to be passing out pink slips.

Government employment rose by 6,000 in January compared with December, the Labor Department reported Friday. That makes the public sector an island of calm in a raging economic sea that washed away a net 598,000 jobs last month. Only one other sector of the economy also escaped the storm – education and health services, which hired 54,000 more workers.

Publicly hip

No wonder government jobs are suddenly "in" – and not just in the United States. Queensland, Australia, has seen so many jobs cuts that applications for fire and ambulance jobs have nearly doubled from a year ago. In Miami, a week ago, hundreds of applicants camped out, some for three days, to apply for 35 firefighting positions. (Click here for a photo.)

Governments are not immune to recessions, but they cut more slowly and less sharply than the private sector during hard times. (California just gave this Friday off to more than 200,000 of its employees – without pay.)

Go Washington, young man

Don't settle for any government job, though. Go federal. From November to December (the latest figures available), federal employment grew a little while local government took a small 0.4 percent trim and state government suffered a bigger whack of 1.3 percent.

Such month-to-month comparisons may not say a whole lot, because the numbers aren't seasonally adjusted. But here's the point: Last year, under President Bush, government employed a record 22.5 million people, double the level of 1966 and, in percentage terms, the highest share of the workforce since 2004.

Room to grow?

Under President Obama, that share looks likely to rise. He has room to expand, since government overall only employs 16.4 percent of the workforce, which is not so far from the five-decade low of 15.4 percent set back in 1959.

The peak of the last half century? That was 19.2 percent set in 1975 during the Ford administration, when the US was coming out of one of its sharpest postwar recessions.

One of the sharpest, that is, until now.

Today's steep recession is making government "cool" again, at least for those who work there.

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