As an accounts manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, Steve Bruno has endured a wage freeze, the sequester and now the partial shutdown of the federal government.
Waiting at Penn Station last week for the train to his job in Washington, the Baltimore man said the serial uncertainty hadn't soured him on government work.
"Not yet," said Bruno, 38. "Maybe if it goes on."
As agencies sent nonessential employees home, unions and other advocates for federal employees warned that the seemingly endless succession of fiscal crises and cuts is threatening the ability of the government to recruit and retain the best talent.
Job satisfaction has fallen to record lows, according to surveys of federal employees. Retirements have climbed to record highs.
While agencies continue to hire and candidates continue to apply, the federal government has shed 60,000 jobs this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month.
"There is a very real impact," said John Palguta, a vice president at the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes careers in government. "There's certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence and also to some degree just common sense that this is not branding the federal government as an employer of choice."
Others say the budget battles are not the cause of recruiting challenges at agencies.
Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, says agencies had difficulty filling positions long before the 2010 election put Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives and Congress shifted its focus to spending cuts.
"Forget about the budget stuff," said Edwards, who edits Cato's Downsizing Government website. "The issue of the federal government being able to fill positions has been an issue for a long time, but it's because of the bureaucracy of hiring people."
Edwards says job candidates are scared off not only by a complicated hiring process but by the fact that agencies are led by political appointees cycled in and out with each presidential administration — making stability rare.
"That's the main frustration with long-term career people," he said.
Edwards points to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that show a turnover rate for government workers less than that of the private sector — an indication, he says, that most in the government are sticking to their jobs.
J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, takes a different view. He says the workforce has been squeezed and vilified by politicians — pressures that are not lost on potential job candidates.
"Obviously, a lot of people that would have chosen government service are looking at other areas," said Cox, whose union represents about 300,000 dues-paying members, including 15,000 in Maryland. "You're not going to recruit the best and the brightest anymore."
Marcelo del Canto, a budget analyst for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, says many of his friends in the field have thought twice about joining the government.
"They're very skeptical at this point because they feel like maybe it's not as stable as it once was," said del Canto, who is the president of a National Treasury Employees Union chapter. "It does take a while to fill some really critical positions — and that has gotten worse."
The challenge is likely more pronounced in technical fields. Amy Fritz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, helps build the computer models that forecasters use to predict hurricane movement.
Fritz, a union steward for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said she knows people who have taken computer jobs in the private sector instead of applying for similar positions at the agency.
"There are examples of where people are not working for us because we're not a able to provide that competitive salary," she said.
Both del Canto and Fritz were furloughed.
Career placement officers at area universities say student interest in federal careers remains strong.
The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington prepares graduate students for careers in the Foreign Service, the intelligence community and other areas of government. Roughly 25 percent of the Master of Arts class of 2011 went into public service. That fell to 18 percent in 2012.
Jean-Amiel Jourdan, senior associate director of career services, said students have learned to be more patient than in the past.
"Given the sequester, given now the shutdown, they have learned to think about what their Plan B or Plan C could be," he said. He gives the example of a student looking to work for the Department of Defense.
"Maybe two, three years ago, they expected to find a job in six months," he said. "Now they know that it might take between one and two years."
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County produces cybersecurity experts, engineers and other candidates for public service. Caroline Baker, an assistant vice president for careers and corporate partnerships, says interest in federal employment "is still extremely strong."
"We have numerous federal agencies that are major partners of the institution and are here frequently to talk about science and technology and nonscience positions in their organizations," she said.
Many UMBC students are related to federal workers or service members, Baker said. "They definitely perceive jobs in the federal government as being both important and honorable."
One campus activity affected by the shutdown, she said, is a job fair scheduled for next week. The State Department and the National Security Agency have pulled out. The event will go on, she said, but if the stoppage continues, other agencies could follow.
While students remain interested in federal employment, job satisfaction among the current workforce is falling. The Partnership for Public Service analyzes government survey data to produce its annual Best Places To Work in the Federal Government report.
In the most recent report, the partnership's Government-wide Best Places To Work Index Score, a calculation that takes into account job satisfaction and engagement, fell 3.2 points to 60.8 in 2012, both the lowest level and the sharpest drop since tracking began in 2003.
Palguta, the partnership's vice president for policy, said early indications are that the score will drop again in the 2013 report.
"A lot of folks joined the government with the notion of a contract here that the job was going to be secure," he said. "They weren't going to be wealthy based on their government salary. But they were going to have a comfortable life, and if they did a good job, they would have that kind of security.
"That employment contract, I think, is now being questioned."