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Breaking down pros & cons of public & private sectors

Mar. 26, 2014 - 02:49PM   |  
Shane Jaeger MWM 20140212
Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Shane Jaeger is a business development manager at Leidos, a defense contracting company based in Reston, Va. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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After 27 years in the Navy, Lt. Cmdr. Shane Jaeger wanted to spend his post-military career doing something that felt close, familiar, comfortable. So he became a military contractor.

“Veterans do well as defense contractors because they know the language, they understand the needs, they ‘own’ the problem because it is a part of who they are,” said Jaeger, a business development manager with Leidos, a Reston, Va., firm that provides scientific, engineering, systems integration and technical services.

Contracting work gives veterans the chance to continue in the spirit of service — but it isn’t the only way to go. For many, a career in the federal government also offers an opportunity to aid the nation.

For those loo king to their days beyond the uniform, it can be a tough decision:work in private-sector contracting, or go the public-sector route and pursue a career in government?

Here are some pros and cons from either side:


Geography: The federal government extends well beyond Washington, D.C., with agencies and offices spread throughout the nation and the world. That makes a good fit for those seeking a specific location or the opportunity to move around.

Opportunity: It’s a big government, and while sequestration and other budget measures may have slowed hiring these days, in the long term, the federal government has been and will remain one of the biggest employers in the land.

Job security: Federal workers tend to stay in place for the long term. Workers in private firms are estimated to be three times as likely to be fired, compared with federal employees.


Bureaucracy: For those with that can-do attitude, you still “can do” in the government, but you’ll probably be doing it slowly. Government’s reputation as a landscape of paper and processes is well earned, and those itching to just get ’er done may end up frustrated.

The hiring process: This may be interminable. All agencies hire through, an excruciating process in itself. Even if you manage to get your résumé into the system, hiring managers may take as long as a year to call you back.

Creative block: Constrained by rules and regulations, the federal government is not famous for its embrace of innovation. It’s hard to put something new on the table and harder still to see it made real.


Mission focus: With their close ties to the military, defense contractors may offer veterans a way to continue the mission. They can see the results of their work and connect those to the experience of their comrades still in the field.

Opportunity: People move from job to job as contracts come and go. As a result, “at any given time, contractors are usually hiring,” said Peter Gudmundsson, president and CEO of RecruitMilitary. Geography is also a plus: Defense contractors, especially the big ones, may have operations nationwide. A career here offers the chance of mobility.

Diverse work: As contracts come and go, employees have a chance to dip in and out of various professional experiences. Whatever one’s expertise, varied projects mean the chance to develop new skills and explore new areas of specialization.


Insecurity: Being project-oriented by nature, contracting jobs come and go. Gudmundsson says you can expect to change positions every three or four years. Not everyone has the stomach for that.

Uncertainty: With the military in flux as a dozen years of war wind down, a question mark looms over the contracting community. No, Lockheed Martin isn’t going out of business any time soon. But the types of work and the number of jobs we’ll see in the future are uncertain.

What’s a win: “It is different from the bottom line you used to have to deal with in the military,” Jaeger said. “The metrics are different. You probably aren’t used to working on a time card. You didn’t have to make more widgets in the military — you just had to do your job and make sure everyone went where they were supposed to go.” Contracting runs along a different set of rules, and they may take some getting used to.

The pay question

Then there’s the money.

Conventional wisdom has it that you’ll always make more money in the private sector, with lower pay being the trade-off for job security in the federal government.

That’s generally true. The Federal Salary Council, a group of union officials and pay policy experts, says federal workers overall earn about 35 percent less than their private-sector peers.

The picture is a bit more complicated, though. Federal workers get generous benefits, for example, and in any case, the averages are just that — average. Real salaries can vary widely based on experience and position, leaving it up to job seekers to make their own comparisons.

Still, 35 percent is a big number. If money matters, this may swing the pendulum in favor of the private sector — but there are lots of other factors to consider.

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