Amid all of the gloomy economic news lately, at least one sector is poised for growth. The $787 billion stimulus package and the $3.6 trillion Obama budget blueprint mean the federal government is hiring.
President Obama has outlined an ambitious agenda for his administration: expanded health care and education, better security at the nations' airports and seaports, and more regulation of the financial markets.
To carry out that agenda, Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, says the government is going to need some help.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if the Obama administration is going to get done what it set out to do, it's going to need more federal workers to do it," Stier says.
The Partnership for Public Service is a nonprofit group that works to revitalize and improve the government. Stier says by his calculations, the government needs to hire up to 200,000 additional employees.
"Right now our direct headcount in the federal government is no larger than it was in the 1960s, and we're going to have to both make up for those days of starvation, as well as increase the size of the government, to do the additional things we need done in today's world," Stier says.
Those additional things include administering Social Security benefits to the growing number of baby boomer retirees, ramping up food safety inspections as the president has called for, and adding tax collectors at the Internal Revenue Service and Foreign Service officers at the State Department.
In an appearance Monday at the Department of Veterans Affairs offices in Washington, Obama said the budget he sent to Congress "increases funding for this department by $25 billion over the next five years. With this budget, we don't just fully fund our VA health care program, we expand it to serve an additional 500,000 veterans by 2013."
Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said the VA in particular faces some big challenges, dealing with a backlog of disability claims and administering a new GI bill. Light said the VA "tried to contract it out, but there were no bidders. So they're going to have to do that in-house, and that means an increase in employees in the education division."
The federal workforce now stands at about 2 million employees. The Bush administration kept that number constant, while adding tens of thousands of contract workers.
Obama has signaled he wants to rein in contractors and increase the federal workforce. But Light says it won't be without a fight.
"The problem for Obama is that there's this sacrosanct 2 million-employee ceiling that we seem to have established politically over the last 15 to 20 years," Light says.
Increasing the federal workforce makes for a fat target for critics of big government. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) said the Obama administration wants to build the largest government in the world.
"I don't think it's a surprise this is an administration that has spoken clearly that they believe the government ought to grow, that the American people ought to be taxed more, that the government ought to spend more and that it ought to borrow more so that government can get larger and have a greater influence over people's lives," Price said. Price said he believes "that that's not the secret to the wonder and beauty and awe that is the nation of America."
No one knows for sure exactly how many new federal jobs the Obama administration would create, because it hasn't yet filled in the details of its budget outline. But it's clear the hiring sign will be out at federal agencies. In addition to new jobs, the administration will have an estimated 400,000 positions to fill to replace workers expected to retire over the next four years.