The Economist published an article in December 2014 about the “rise of the vetocracy.” Not (as Democrats might hope for, given the new Congress) veto-cracy, but vet-ocracy, as the newspaper calls the increasing number of federal employees who have served in the military.

The Economist notes that about a third of all federal employees are veterans – a figure that has increased sharply since 2009 – and that roughly 50% of new federal employees are veterans.

Source: The Economist, 6 Dec 2014

Source: The Economist, 6 Dec 2014

Anecdotal evidence supports this. Indeed, this fall, a Park Service manager all but told me to give up trying to secure a federal position without military credentials, saying, “It’s very, very, hard for even the most qualified non-veteran candidates.”

Federal employers loom large in interpretation, so the difficulty non-veterans have in securing federal positions has enormous consequences for interpreters and our profession. For some, it will be a gain. For others a loss.

Let’s start with the gain – a lack of easily-obtained federal positions means non-federal employers will have more choices in the hiring market. This set of conditions should be a boon to such institutions. It is hard for state parks, for example, to compete with the compensation and benefits offered by the federal conservation agencies (to say nothing of the prestige of working for the National Park Service). But the rise of the vetocracy is changing this equation. Individuals who might otherwise have earned a federal position will be available for hire by private nature centers, state and local parks, zoos, aquariums, and museums.

There is a flip side to this – well-qualified individuals without military credentials are at a disadvantage when looking for work. I’m sure there are many veterans in the federal service who are excellent interpreters. But I’m equally sure that there are federal interpreters who, if it weren’t for their military service, would not have been hired. Recent graduates in particular who lack military service and are looking for their first permanent, post-college position – like myself – are being forced to take positions outside the field because it’s increasingly difficult to be an interpreter. The job market has effectively contracted for us.

Obviously, from where we sit in the Sunny Southeast, there’s not much that can be about this phenomenon. We can, however, reflect on how the vetocracy is changing the job market. Here’s some questions to mull over on the drive home tonight:

  • How can federal managers ensure that the best interpreters are hired while respecting veteran’s preference rules?
  • Non-federal employers have a golden opportunity to access talent that might have otherwise been collected by the federal government – how can they leverage that opportunity? How, for example, can a small historic site attract and retain candidates who might feel they are ‘settling’ for work outside of a large national battlefield or similar setting?
  • What sort of responsibility do professors and other mentors have to their mentees interested in the federal service? How should mentors balance the need to be supportive with the need to be forthcoming about the challenges of finding a federal position?

The rise of the vetocracy is a mixed bag. Let’s start the conversation about what it means for us and the future of our profession.

This article cross-posted on the author’s own blog, where he writes about public lands, heritage interpretation, and environmental policy.

Categories: General, Jobs / Professional Development | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Aristocracy….Meritocracy…Vetocracy?

  1. nscarborough3

    Chance, I was thinking of this same concept recently; I’m in a similar situation as you. I appreciate you making a post about this on our regional blog. I know several friends who consider leaving our field entirely due to the challenges and politics of securing full-time, long-term positions, and I can sympathize with them.

    For me, part of this conversation will include how many internships are meant for interns to do the work that paid or long-term positions don’t have the time for. The consequence of this is interns complete internships without having the knowledge and skills that make them competitive for full-time hiring, nor are they on a direct professional path leading to a full-time position at the organization. I know there are exceptions to this scenario, but the exceptions are not the norm.

  2. I would be willing to be the number of people who leave the field because they can’t find permanent employment is not insignificant. I’m sure some folks would argue that’s evidence of the invisible hand of a properly functioning market – demand for permanent interpreters is lower than supply, so the supply is decreasing.

    But that simplistic view ignores the various ways in which the market is distorted. Federal employers basically have to hire veterans. Many employers hire candidates with backgrounds in a particular subject (e.g., biology, history, etc) rather than candidates with degrees in interpretation. Universities, under relentless pressure to constantly increase their enrollment numbers or have their budgets/programs cut, recruit students for park management programs, even when the labor market is over-saturated with graduates. Many folks who earn an internship or seasonal position discover their experience is either (as you point out) worth very little in the long run or will require the better part of a decade of schlepping across the country every six months for low-paying jobs with no benefits and miserable housing conditions in order to be able to compete for permanent positions.

    It’s not hard to see why there are so many recent graduates who leave the field.

  3. DV

    I’m sorry that you think it’s not fair that Veteran’s preference in Federal hiring means that a non-military candidate with a College education may not be hired over a Veteran. While you were off in College, Veterans who began careers in the military weren’t — they were sacrificing years of their lives, often in far away places under nasty conditions, including writing the big blank check: accepting that they may never come back home. In return for the dystopian blackhole of lost time, which can sometimes span 20 years and of which every Veteran must race to play catch-up, the Federal Government, a tiny sliver of the labor economy, offers a “catch-up” handicap. So that when Veterans return, they don’t start back at step 0 on the employment ladder as though they’ve never held a job before.

    I can assure you, as much as most Veterans have no interest in working for the government again, they are often forced to because civilian employers view years spent in a military career as a big fat zero or, even worse stigma means its looked upon as a negative — worse than if you’d never worked. For example, a person may find that they may spent 10 years in their career, managed 20 employees on a daily basis, and were responsible for millions of dollars in company equipment. Put the words military or Veteran in front of that, and the job market drops it to a not-interested. Bottom Line: Despite years of career experience, most enlisted Veterans resumes are useless, and they find that only government will employ them.

    I hope this offers you some understanding of why the Federal Government has long offered Veteran’s preference and how crucial it is for career-seasoned Veterans to reintegrate into the job market. It is simply a function to make up for years and years of lost time.

  4. @DV –

    Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate your perspective.

    Several members of my immediate family have served in the military. I’m keenly aware of the challenges of re-entering the workforce after being in the service. You’re right. It’s a challenge.

    A couple of brief comments:
    1. The federal government is the country’s largest employer. It is not a ‘tiny sliver of the labor economy’. Indeed, it is often regarded as the largest employer in the world. This information is widely available on the web.

    2. I don’t know this, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that a plurality (if not an outright majority) of permanent, full-time heritage interpreter positions are in the federal service. Heritage interpretation isn’t like most professions. There are very few private institutions that hire heritage interpreters and those that do (national park concessionaires, for example), don’t hire them in great numbers. The federal government’s hiring practices have a much larger impact on our profession’s labor market than on the labor market for accountants or lawyers or law enforcement officers (for example).

    You’re also right, DV, that I don’t think veteran’s preference is fair. Otherwise well-qualified people are not even considered for hiring because they don’t have military service. That’s not OK.

    But that’s neither here nor there, in my opinion. Veteran’s preference isn’t going to change. We shouldn’t be spending our time debating its fairness. It’s not a productive conversation to have.

    Instead, as I suggested in my column, I believe we need be asking ourselves hard questions about the impact of veteran’s preference.

    1. How can federal employers train new employees (that they are essentially forced to hire) when the financial resources to do so are scarce? How can federal employers make sure they are still providing high-quality interpretive experiences when new employees have very little experience or training in doing so?

    2. How can non-federal employers leverage the opportunity veteran’s preference creates to lure potential employees who might not otherwise consider working at a small nature center, state park, or for a private concessionaire?

    3. How can universities provide good-faith advising to students who are interested in the federal service? How do professors maintain students’ interest in heritage interpretation when one of (if not the) largest employers is largely inaccessible to (non-military) college graduates?

    We, as a profession, ignore these questions to our detriment.

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