Life after buyouts
- By Elana Varon
- Jul 12, 1998
If you are looking for Patricia Phillips these days, you are likely to find her scouring church rummage sales for great deals on antique radios, toys and pottery, which she then takes home, cleans up and resells at auction on the World Wide Web. The dirty work often pays off: A customer recently paid about $20 for a set of scratchy Beatles albums that Phillips bought for 50 cents. "They were great for decorating,'' said the former General Services Administration middle manager turned Information Age entrepreneur.
Phillips, 54, launched her computer-based business as a hobby two years ago, a few months after accepting a federal buyout and leaving her job as GSA's deputy director for interagency information technology strategies. Thirty-five years with the government had been "enough," she said. Phillips now wants to earn enough money to pay the taxes on her federal pension.
IT "was my whole career,'' said Phillips, whose first government job was as a card punch operator in the Treasury Department. "That helped me to be proficient with it and not be afraid of it,'' she said— confidence that helped her as she learned to use a digital camera to take photos of her wares and upload them to www.ebay.com, the online auction site where she makes her sales.
Phillips is one of at least 121,218 federal employees, including IT professionals, who ended their careers between April 1994 and last December under several buyout programs designed to encourage early retirement. The Office of Personnel Management has not received complete reports on buyouts from all agencies for the last three months of 1997. Although three agencies— the departments of Defense and Agriculture as well as NASA— are allowed to offer buyouts for another two or three years, most workers who have taken advantage of the deals departed more than a year ago.
OPM does not track what ex-federal employees do after retirement, and the most recent Labor Department survey on the fate of displaced workers, conducted in 1996, did not detail whether these employees had changed careers voluntarily.
But former government managers interviewed recently by FCW show how these managers have parlayed their careers into rewarding private-sector jobs, employing their IT backgrounds in new roles and enjoying the change of setting— and sometimes increase in pay— after so many years with the government.
The Washington, D.C., area is home for many ex-government officials and military officers who retired in their 40s or 50s to pursue new careers. When the government started downsizing, however, many people who were not necessarily planning to change jobs were suddenly confronted with a quick, and not always easy, decision.
"I have been flabbergasted,'' said Delores "Dee" Smith, who had two weeks last November to decide whether to leave a new job at the Defense Logistics Agency. "The shock factor'' of ending her 31-year DOD career was unsettling, she recounted.
Smith, 52, decided to leave because contractors who knew her from her previous assignment— as the military's electronic commerce evangelist— were recruiting her. "Industry was tapping me, and I thought, 'Gee, it appears to me that when you're hot, you're only hot for certain periods and then you lose your network.' "
She accepted an offer from OAO Corp., which is run by one of her former DOD bosses, Emmett Paige Jr., to run a new division of the company dedicated to marketing electronic commerce products. "I'm hoping I can help bring industry best practices to the federal sector as well as the private sector,'' said Smith a few weeks after she started her new job in May. "I'm contributing to the same process in a different capacity.''
Like others with up-to-date IT skills, Smith has benefited from the nationwide explosion of high-tech jobs. "If there's one area where we've seen people make an easy transition, it's in the area of IT,'' said Paul Dinte, who heads the executive search firm Dinte Resources Inc., McLean, Va., which has placed many ex-federal employees in corporate jobs. "IT is in demand no matter what the [industry] sector is. This is one particular area that cuts across all boundaries.''
That's what Henry Philcox, 57, found when he retired in 1995 from his job as chief information officer with the Internal Revenue Service. Although federal buyouts were in full swing, the IRS was not offering any. But Philcox was weary of the constant pressure and continual spotlight that came with running what he now calls "the biggest mess in the world," the IRS' Tax Systems Modernization program.
He still considered the position of top technology executive appealing, however. After conferring with colleagues who were also contemplating changes, he concluded that the private sector would be a good move. He became CIO of DynCorp and has spent the past three years running the company's computer and telecommunications systems, overseeing millennium date-conversion projects and finding the latest technology for the firm to use to support its contracts.
"I was mainly looking for a job that was less stressful and in which I had more control,'' he said. As DynCorp's CIO, Philcox works 50 to 60 hours a week, instead of the 80 hours a week he tallied at the IRS, for more than double his government salary.
Philcox applied what he learned working on the IRS' IT modernization program to DynCorp's effort to develop the information systems it needs to keep pace with business demands. While many federal managers land in marketing or contract management positions, "I think to make a transition out of government directly into an operations job in the private sector is very, very hard,'' Philcox observed. "They don't typically have the same kind of responsibilities in those jobs that they had in the government.''
Another top federal IT executive who found a way to apply his federal skills to private-sector work is William James, 43, who left his job as director of the CIO support staff at Air Force headquarters last summer because he had "accomplished all that I was personally looking to accomplish.'' He plotted his exit for months before quitting, without taking a buyout, and went to work as vice president for communications and infrastructure with Litton/PRC Inc.
James' main responsibility, developing services that will solve infrastructure management problems that CIOs face, is closely related to what he did for the government.
James, however, wanted a position in which he could be creative, and the PRC job did not have a fixed description. A short time after James started at PRC, he applied for a patent for a product he had invented while with the Air Force. The product is designed to control remote devices over the Internet. "It's harder to get money associated with a good idea on the federal side than on the private side,'' James observed.
When vendors hire former federal executives such as James for marketing jobs, it is because "they want to know as much as they possibly can [about] what the government needs so they can respond and do their strategic planning accordingly,'' said Mary Ann Gilleece, a lawyer who served with the Defense Department during the Reagan administration and who now helps former government officials find jobs. Indeed, Gilleece said IT companies typically do not search out federal workers well-versed in policy. "Industry doesn't really very much care about people who set policy,'' she said. "You can't buy it; you can't sell it.''
One federal policy-maker, however, who successfully landed a corporate job is Cynthia Kendall. Kendall, 46, spent the last eight years of her federal career as Defense deputy assistant secretary for information management before she took a buyout in 1996. She recalled having no specific post-retirement plans; she just wanted to do something else. After a few months working as a consultant, Kendall decided she wanted to learn more about how companies work.
She took a job as vice president for information management with Science Applications International Corp., where she is in charge of the firm's GSA schedule contracts and its business with the National Institutes of Health. Kendall observed, "Probably the biggest difference [between corporations and the government is, as] everybody says, the goal in the private sector is the bottom line. But there is a very strong emphasis on meeting the customers' needs. When I was in DOD, that's what we were looking for [too].''
While many former federal IT workers have landed fulfilling, high-paying corporate jobs, Peter Capelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said the ease with which IT professionals find new jobs depends on whether their specific skills are in demand and how long ago they left their last positions.
"IT is the one place that people complain about retention problems,'' he said. "But it's highly segmented. They've got certain niches, certain skills that are in high demand and others that are almost worthless.''
While it may be that not everyone who has taken early retirement offers from their agencies is satisfied with what they are doing, the five former managers interviewed for this story each said they believe they made the right decision.
"It seems like my federal career happened to someone else; it didn't happen to me,'' Phillips concluded. "My life is so different today. Every day is a holiday. I don't even want to take vacations anymore.''