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.
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.