A salute to feds with really tough jobs

Air traffic controllers: When you can see what's really going on aloft, you think, whatever we're paying those people, it's not enough.

The more experience you accumulate, the more you realize that what other people do is way harder than you might’ve once given them credit for.

This is why I never boo or taunt professional baseball players, despite their millions and my $9 beer. I admire their stamina as much their skill.

The other night I went to the circus. Through the tacky music and lighting, I still managed to be amazed — 50 years after seeing my first circus — with the high-wire act. Or the guy who keeps 15 snarling tigers under control.

The federal government has always included difficult occupations  you have to admire. This came to mind when following the issue of the Woman Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS. They’ve been fighting for their full, rightful recognition for more than half a century. Inexplicably, former Army Secretary John McHugh barred their ashes from placement at Arlington National Cemetery. They’d been recognized as veterans back in 1977. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) sponsored legislation to reverse that decision. The House approved a similar bill. It’s hard to imagine today how skilled the WASPs were or how difficult their jobs were. Sounds easy — flying new warplanes from U.S. factories to air bases, sometime overseas. Those old time planes were loud, slow, freezing at altitude, and unpressurized. They required real muscle to maneuver. A lot was at stake in every flight.

Contemporary jobs are no less demanding. For instance, air traffic controllers. You look up, there’s a plane, maybe two. A couple of minutes later there’s another plane. What’s so hard? Then I became a FlightRadar24 addict. I paid $3.99 for the full app on my phone. When you can see what’s really going on aloft, you think, whatever we’re paying those people, it’s not enough. Each little mistake carries the potential for disaster. How many could do that year after year?

I guess I’m on an aviation theme today, but Transportation Security Administration screening officers — what a tough job that is. Just imagine a shift. Everybody’s grumpy. You’ve got to touch weirdos, some with dirty clothes. Or look in luggage and find… you don’t want to know. Or stare at a screen watching hundreds of people’s bags of junk go by. Yet in my experience most of them remain cheerful, or at least polite. Their jobs require more knowledge, psychology and intuition than I suspect most of us realize.

Every week I interview a director from the Government Accountability Office. We take their reports for granted. GAO analysts work hard, have to do thorough research, and write bulletproof reports. As a daily scribbler, I doubt I’d have the patience or skill to do a 46 or 246-page report that could stand up to what those reports have to stand up to.

Federal accounts, financial officers, and actuaries. Everybody pokes fun at the green eyeshade boys, the bean counters, the pencil-pushing number crunchers. But they too possess an immense amount of specialized knowledge and do a lot of complex reporting under deadline pressure. They didn’t create the arcane, sometime nutty federal finance system, but they’ve got to make it work.

Soon it’ll be 5:30 on a warm spring Friday. After that, take the rest of the day off.

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