Kim Midkiff remembers a time when hiring into federal civilian service was much like winning the “golden ticket” in a state lottery.
When Midkiff was a teenager growing up in West Virginia in the 1970s, her parents eyed federal government jobs in the Washington, D.C., area for their three daughters. To their generation, the jobs represented good pay and benefits, employment stability and opportunity.
“Our parents said we were going to work for the federal government after high school graduation, so off we went. I took a typing test and hired in as a GS-2 at the Department of Agriculture,” Midkiff said.
But, Midkiff also had a part-time job as a waitress at a pizza restaurant where customers were generous and co-workers were friendly. For a short while, she juggled both jobs, calling in sick when late nights serving pizza made her too tired for a full day of administrative work.
“My government boss finally found out and told me I had to choose. I knew my mom and dad would kill me if I quit my government job,” she recalled.
Not long after she made a full commitment to government service, Midkiff went to work for the Department of Army Materiel and Readiness Command, which became Army Materiel Command. Thirty-nine years later, Midkiff, the assistant to the AMC’s secretary to the general staff, is now looking toward the opportunities of government retirement in a few years, leaving behind a federal workforce that has changed drastically in terms of educational, professional and career opportunities.
Since the Continental Congress first created its Army in 1775, Army civilians have been central to its service in peace and war, fulfilling such duties as clerks and wagon drivers in those early years to today’s scientists, engineers and administrative assistants, among other career fields.
“A real strength of our civilians is that they are stable, remaining in their jobs for much longer periods of time than the military,” retired Lt. Gen. Jim Pillsbury, a former Army Materiel Command deputy commander, said in the publication A Brief History of U.S. Army Civilian 1775-2015. “They thus learn their jobs and are able to hone the skills necessary to be at the highest level of skill and knowledge in their fields.”
While history holds many examples of civilians providing significant support in all aspects of Army service, modern day developments for federal employees provide a glimpse of how civilian roles have transformed over recent decades. Beginning with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 that established the personnel merit system and other personnel practices to improve management of the civilian workforce, other congressional as well as Department of Defense and Army directives grew the professionalism of the civilian workforce. This culminated with the establishment of the Army Civilian Corps Creed in 2006 and the establishment of career programs for all Army civilian occupational specialties in 2011.
For longtime Army civilian Claus Martel, those directives put on paper what he had first experienced as a young nursing Soldier working alongside a civilian medical staff at Walter Reed Medical Center in the late 1970s.
“My familiarity with civilians supporting the Army goes back 43 years when Army Soldiers and civilians worked as one team at Walter Reed,” said Martel, who later began a civilian career as an Army historian and who now leads the history program at Army Materiel Command.
Although always stable, the uniformity of civil service employment in the 1960s, 70s and early ‘80s didn’t encourage innovation, initiative and professional development beyond the job at hand.
“In almost a half century as a civilian Army employee, I’ve seen changes from the old civil service system that did not promote accountability and goal setting, and where you were pretty much locked in for your entire career, to programs that encourage education and leadership development,” Martel said.
“Things started to change in 1986 with the Federal Employment Retirement System that allowed civilians greater flexibility in their careers and more opportunity to build greater wealth for retirement through those careers.”
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was tremendous growth in educational opportunities and leadership development for civilians, Martel said. That continued into the 2000s as civilians deployed in support of troops during war, civilian leadership training programs were put in place and in 2011 the Career Program System was established.
“The Career Program System was a gigantic leap forward in terms of being able to network with people of similar occupations, and in terms of finding job opportunities and developmental opportunities,” Martel said. “There are so many more opportunities for civil servants than there were 30 or 40 years ago.”
With those opportunities also comes a growing respect for what civilians contribute to the Army mission, he said, which is ironic in an era when there are less Army civilians than ever before. At AMC, where the workforce is more than 95 percent civilian, AMC headquarters employed 25,000 civilians in 1962. Today, it is home to 600 civilian employees.
“We’ve learned to do more with less,” Martel said. “The Army has worked to keep an engaged but smaller workforce by providing educational opportunities.
“One of AMC’s greatest success stories is its intern program. There are so many people I know who started as an intern and who are now Senior Executive Service members. That’s a testament to AMC’s commitment to educating the workforce and providing opportunities to progress.”
Martel is a product of Army educational opportunities, having attended college on the GI Bill and then joining the Army workforce at Redstone Arsenal through the co-op program, which he describes as “a creative educational program that allowed people who did not consider a civil service career to be introduced to it.”
Even though the Army’s civilian landscape has seen significant change, growing a civilian career still requires the same recipe for success – being prepared and working hard, Martel said.
“Things have changed so much. But what hasn’t changed is the simple fact that if you are prepared to work hard and take advantage of opportunities and training, then you will be rewarded,” he said.
Also unchanged is the contributions that the civilian workforce makes to the Army every day.
“The thing I’ve enjoyed the most about being a civilian working for the Army is that I know I am here to support and that I work for great leaders who are committed to our Army and our nation,” Midkiff said. “I’ve always loved what I do working with AMC employees at the major subordinate commands and at headquarters.”
The adoption of the Army civilian creed in 2006 solidified for Midkiff what it means to be an Army civilian.
“The creed made all of us feel more valued,” she said. “Everyone felt more important because our value to the Army was spelled out in the creed. To me, the creed meant I was trusted and that meant the world to me.”
Today, more than 330,000 Army civilians are part of the total force supporting the Army’s worldwide mission.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series on the Army civilian workforce.