Pitching government jobs to the younger set


May 05, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

Dressed in a dark suit, her hair pulled back, Maxine M. Brown walks in front of dozens of thin computer monitors displaying colorful maps of the United States.

"Want to know why my job is different every day?" she says to the camera panning across the sleek workstations. "It's like the weather. In fact, it is the weather."

The music picks up. Images of a blizzard, a tornado and brilliant lightning strikes flash across the screen, and Brown says, "I use high-performance supercomputers to generate America's climate, weather and ocean forecasts."

This 30-second television commercial featuring Brown, a Maryland federal worker and resident, was one of four government-produced spots unveiled this week to attract younger workers to the federal service during a period of record-setting retirements among baby boomers.

Brown, 57, is one of those boomers. Like so many of them, she has spent her entire career -- 39 years -- in government service, rising to be manager of an information technology branch of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. But it was not the path she expected.

Brown graduated as valedictorian of her high school class in 1965 at age 16. Given her youth, she decided to remain close to her rural Virginia home in the Shenandoah Valley and enroll in Bridgewater College, where she was one of only three minority students and the only minority woman.

She left college at the end of her freshman year after someone burned a cross in front of her dorm room. She moved to Washington and began classes at the black-owned Cortez W. Peters Business College, completing its two-year program in one year. It was 1967, and President Lyndon Johnson had launched the Great Society, creating thousands of federal civilian jobs.

"In the city, that's all anybody was talking about, getting a job with the government," Brown said. "I decided to take the test because all of the other employers wanted experience, but I was only 18."

Brown applied to several agencies and took a job as a correspondence clerk for the Army. Her job was to maintain files on dead American soldiers and prisoners of war and to mail official death notifications to relatives. When asked to talk about it yesterday, Brown shuddered.

"It was just awful," she said. "Fortunately, the letters had a standard format. Someone had already knocked on the family's door."

Brown was determined to advance into a professional role. In 1974, she saw her opportunity -- a posting for a Defense Department internship program in computer programming.

On her first day, she worried that she had enrolled in another hostile environment.

"I was the only minority again," Brown said. "Those old fears came back. ... But once everyone started talking, they were so kind and acknowledged me. That first day, I knew I had done the right thing. It's amazing how 10 years had made such a difference."

Brown rose to Grade 15, the highest position on the General Schedule. She now manages two dozen employees and contractors who design software for the NOAA.

The software culls data from ships, airplanes, balloons and other weather-monitoring stations and builds graphics from the data, which appear on meteorologists' workstations and at the National Weather Service's supercomputer in Gaithersburg.

"She's a tough captain," said Michael Wooldridge, a senior duty meteorologist, who works one floor above Brown. "If something isn't ship-shape, she will square it right quick."

Brown, who lives in Suitland with her husband and son, said that she does not know how she was selected to appear in the commercial. A spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that produced the ads, said someone within Brown's agency nominated her.

"I was happy to do it because I have concerns myself," Brown said. "A lot of us are ready to retire, and if everybody retires at the same time, it's going to leave a big hole."

No clearance cash

A division of the Department of Defense has stopped processing contractors' requests for security clearances because it has run out of money, a spokeswoman for the Defense Security Service said this week.

Contractors working with sensitive information need security clearances, which only the government can issue. Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House's government reform committee, sent a letter to the service's acting director last week, asking for an explanation.

The Defense Security Service accepts contractors' applications, checks the company's credentials, and forwards paperwork to the Office of Personnel Management, which conducts background investigations.

The Defense Department pays the personnel agency $3,700 on average for a top-secret clearance and between $150 and $160 for a secret clearance, said Cindy McGovern, a spokeswoman for the security service. The service is accepting applications but not forwarding them to OPM.

"We know we are receiving more requests this year than in past years, and we're trying to get a handle on why," she said.

The Defense Department forwarded about 142,000 clearances and reinvestigations to OPM in fiscal 2005, McGovern said. They have forwarded 103,000 in the first half of fiscal year 2006.

Michael Orenstein, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, said that the Defense Department underestimated its needs and that OPM is "ready to accept new applications" when the issue is resolved.

The writer can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885.

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