Federal executive: Why move on when today’s work is so great?

Calculations about whether to leave federal service, for many federal career people, tend to juggle the financial considerations. What's the best month, the bes...

Calculations about whether to leave federal service, for many federal career people, tend to juggle the financial considerations. What’s the best month, the best health plan, the optimal TSP withdrawal strategy if you’re about to retire?

Important as those questions are, retirement planners often say you need to make sure you know what you actually want to do the day after you gleefully skip out of the agency lobby. Make sure you have things to do that you’re passionate about.

If you’re switching careers, pivoting to an after-government pursuit, you also face a look-before-you-jump question. Many a fed has found that the pay can be good in those companies that clamor for them. They also find out that the corporate honeymoon lasts about one quarter. Another question is whether the work you’ll do in the corporate world fits your talent and temperament.

Robert Fenton is one fed who likes his work and has put off moving on, even though he’s thought about it. The name might be familiar. Fenton was recently named by the White House as the coordinator for the monkeypox virus response. Before his latest tasking, Fenton was the Region 9 administrator of FEMA. A 26-year FEMA employee, he was, for a time, the acting administrator under both the Trump and Biden administrations. He started his FEMA career as a temp.

Fenton marveled that he’s somehow ended up at the biggest events in the worst times. He was in Philadelphia when the 9/11 attacks occurred and got called to the World Trade Center site within hours. He helped FEMA deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans — an event that was transformative for FEMA itself. At the fall of Afghanistan, the White House tapped Fenton as the senior response official for the Operation Allies Welcome program.

Fenton really came into the limelight when, as acting FEMA administrator in February 2021, the White House tapped him to set up the federal mass vaccination centers across the nation. Again, he  was a career civil servant detailee and not a political one. He’s a Service to America Medals finalist for the vaccination work. It required coordination and cajoling with an array of federal, state and local agencies to establish 39 mass centers in stadiums and big parking lots, and some 1,600 smaller centers out on the hustings. That effort accelerated vaccination efforts led by states and counties after the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed yielded vaccines in late 2020.

A big guy at 6’3″, Fenton joked that the ceilings in the rabbit warren known as the West Wing seem low, the corridors cramped.

Fenton said he’d thought of moving on from federal service, even discussed it with his wife, but the challenges kept coming. COVID-19, the Afghanistan aftermath, monkeypox. He said it’s just too hard to leave when you never know what the next chunk of red meat might be tossed your way.

If you are working past the standard retirement age, the lure can be strong. I am, and just yesterday, I got a text from one retired friend who wanted to go on a nice motorcycle ride on a gorgeous afternoon. I was up to my eyeballs in tape for the next day’s show. Yet that’s the point. Every day I get to meet new and interesting people, and talk about their lives and expertise.

Consider Bob Fenton’s story. It’s a bit of a counterbalance to the flight urge. At 52, Fenton said he doesn’t plan to retire-retire anytime soon, but, rather, maybe see what other sectors have to offer. But not now, not when there’s monkeypox to deal with, not when challenges keep coming.



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