WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the economic downturn forces corporations and small businesses to shed jobs, one large employer still has the 'help wanted' sign out: the U.S. government.
Experts say the federal government's civilian workforce of 2.8 million is likely to expand significantly over the next several years as it gears up to stimulate the economy, rescue troubled banks, overhaul health care and pursue other elements of President Barack Obama's agenda.
With the economy in turmoil, the stability of a government career now holds greater appeal.
And it doesn't hurt that the new boss, President Barack Obama, has encouraged citizens to consider public service -- a marked contrast to predecessor George W. Bush, who disparaged government.
"It's the same thing that happened 40-some-odd years ago when Kennedy came in," said Ross Harris, whose Federal Research Service helps applicants find government jobs. "It was a new generation and there was the same type of excitement behind it, and we're seeing the same type of thing with Obama."
Harris said he has seen the number of unique visitors to his website double over the past year as the recession has taken hold.
Government hiring has increased steadily over the past four years, from 79,000 in fiscal year 2004 to 99,000 in fiscal 2007, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that the $787 billion economic stimulus package signed into law last month could create at least 100,000 more government jobs next year and 120,000 by 2012.
More jobs are likely to be found in Obama's $3.5 trillion budget, which envisions a greater government role in financial regulation, student loans, environmental regulation and care for war veterans. Experts say they won't know the full extent until the formal proposal is released in April.
Obama has also promised to cut down on the use of contractors that do the government's work, which means more hires could be on the horizon.
As of early March there were 39,000 federal job openings, according to the government's USAJobs.gov employment portal.
Among those listed:
- meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland, paying up to $134,000 annually;
- manager for public-access programs with the Bureau of Land Management in Billings, Montana, paying up to $105,000;
- civil engineer designing buildings, dams and roads for the Army Corps of Engineers in Honolulu, Hawaii, paying up to $92,000.
Though a job in the federal bureaucracy is not likely to lead to riches, salaries have improved in recent years and the government has offered tuition assistance and signing bonuses to compete with the private sector, Harris said. Guaranteed cost-of-living salary increases and generous retirement benefits sweeten the deal.
For some, the opportunity to do meaningful work trumps a large paycheck.
Daniel Fein, a field attorney with the National Labor Relations Board in Boston, says he was drawn to his job by a desire to make a difference and a wish to avoid the 60-hour weeks common in the legal profession.
"If I were working at a large firm, I would be making more money, but I would also be spending a lot more of my life working," he said. "I don't know if you're really any better off."
Government employees also are less likely to lose their jobs than their private-sector counterparts.
In December 2008, 2.4 percent of the total private-sector workforce was laid off or fired, while only three-tenths of 1 percent of the federal workforce lost their jobs involuntarily, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst