Ask any California state worker what piqued their interest in state service, and they’ll probably say a relative told them to apply.
To an outsider, state work can feel like its own world with its own rules, its own culture and even its own secret language. Having a family member or close friend who knows how to navigate that world is a huge benefit.
The Sacramento Bee spoke to nine current, former and future state employees from three different families. All of them described state employment as a quality job. It’s not as glamorous as companies like Google, Apple or Meta, and it certainly doesn’t pay as well. But at the same time, state jobs provide stability. Civil servants don’t have to worry as much about losing their jobs during recessions. They know they’ll receive a solid pension when they retire. Plus, if they stay long enough, they can guarantee health care coverage for the rest of their lives.
“Unless your parents were civil servants, I doubt that you’re aspiring to be a civil servant,” said Andrew Russell, 42, an information technology supervisor at CalPERS. “But once people realize how difficult it is to get one of those really prestigious jobs, they look at the state and say, ‘Hmm, that’s actually a really good career, that’s actually decent pay and fantastic benefits.’”
For people who come from hourly jobs – as did most of the workers who spoke to The Bee – even paid state holidays and the ability to bank leave time are incredible boons. Plus, you don’t need a fancy degree to work for California. Public service is one of the last industries where workers can advance their careers purely through dedicated service and work experience rather than a credential on paper.
“The government is here to provide stability to people, but also, through its employment, it’s providing stability,” said Russell. He and his wife, also a state worker in IT, both have parents, aunts, uncles and cousins who retired from or still work in state service.
Some Californians might consider the state an employer of last resort. The salaries aren’t as high as those in the private sector, and the trade-off of better benefits isn’t instantaneous. State employee unions often criticize how the state treats employees, especially during contract bargaining season when pay raises and benefit adjustments are on the line. And they correctly point out that state wages have largely failed to keep pace with inflation.
But the security of a state job still holds incredible value for many.
“I think the state jobs will always be valued,” said Phil Bettencourt, 66, a Correctional Food Manager II at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton.
Bettencourt’s two daughters both joined state service within the last three years. Not only does he feel proud that his children are following in his footsteps, but he also can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they’ll have access to retirement and health benefits in the future.
“I tell them both, ‘Dad doesn’t have to worry about you now,’” Bettencourt said. “You’ll have a nice retirement, you’ll be taken care of. I know you’re going to be fine.”
How do you get a state job? Family helps ‘decode’ state worker language
As a new high school graduate, Russell didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He floated from job to job, working in a pizza shop, a gas station, a paint store and several other places. The longest time he spent in any one position was about a year and a half.
In his own words, “I was not a great kid from 18 to 26.”
By his late 20s, Russell realized he wanted to land a job with upward mobility and career prospects. He’d always liked gaming, and after his personal computer’s power supply broke for the second time, he learned how to replace it himself rather than pay someone else for parts and labor. His friends knew they could come to him with their technology troubles and he’d help sort them out.
Andrew Russell also knew that his father, Dale Russell, had worked in IT for Caltrans. But the two weren’t exceptionally close, and Dale had moved to San Francisco after he and Andrew’s mom divorced.
Still, Andrew decided to reach out. He told his dad he wanted to join the state and asked for advice on how to apply and navigate the interview process. Dale told Andrew a four-year IT degree would greatly increase his chances of getting a state job. He even offered to let his son stay with him for the first three years of online school at the University of Phoenix.
When the time came to job hunt, Andrew Russell almost didn’t apply for the “Information Technology Associate” position for which he was eventually hired. The minimum qualifications stated that applicants “must have knowledge of IBM-C” – a programming language that Andrew wasn’t well-versed in.
“It’s like, ‘Must have knowledge of this, knowledge of that, knowledge of this,” Russell said. “Prior to my dad explaining it to me, I would have been like, ‘I have none of that. I’m not going to apply.’”
But what Russell didn’t know yet, and what his father would soon teach him, was how to translate the nuanced language of state civil service.
As Russell recalls, his dad asked him, “Andrew, what does ‘knowledge of’ mean to you?”
“That I know about it,” he replied.
His dad said, “Exactly. That does not mean you’re an expert in it.” Dale told his son to go online and research the topics that the state required ‘knowledge of’.
“You now have knowledge of it,” Russell recalls his father telling him. “Why can’t you apply?”
So, Russell applied. And about four months later, he got the job as an IT associate with the Department of Social Services.
“It was mind-blowing to me,” Russell said of the “secret” state worker language. “I probably wouldn’t have applied if my dad hadn’t coached me through it.”
The state as a matchmaker
If Russell hadn’t overcome his fear and applied for the job, he might not have met his wife, Tina Swain, currently an IT specialist at the Department of Health Care Services.
The couple met when they both worked for Social Services. At the time, Russell worked for the department’s service desk. When he saw Swain walk past him in the hall one day, he did a double take.
“Who’s that?” he thought to himself. “I’ve never seen her on my floor before.”
The next day at the all-IT staff meeting, Swain introduced herself to the room and Russell committed her name to memory. Later, she called down to the service desk and Russell’s co-worker answered. When Russell learned who was on the phone, he immediately perked up.
“I said, ‘Oh! That’s that girl! Tell her I’ll come down and help her.”
“Why would I do that? I could just remote in,” the co-worker said to him. Into the phone, the coworker told Swain, “Sounds like you have a fan here at the service desk.”
Russell ran into Swain on the elevator later that day. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he told her he was her fan at the service desk.
“She giggled, and I asked her if she wanted to go to lunch,” Russell said. “And the rest is history.”
State careers open doors for candidates without degrees
Unlike her husband, Swain worked her way into the IT field with just her high school diploma. Her late mother, who at the time worked for CalPERS, pushed Swain to get an entry-level state job rather than pull hostess shifts at Joe’s Crab Shack. She started as a student assistant while taking classes at Sacramento City College but then left school to work full-time as an office technician.
Fast-forward a decade later and Swain now makes comparable money to her husband, although she’s rank-and-file rather than management. Since she started with the state earlier than he did, Swain has also accrued more years of service toward her retirement.
“Not having a college degree and getting as far as I got, you know, it’s very satisfying,” Swain said.
Russell’s degree might have saved him years of climbing the civil service ladder, but he says the price of $65,000 in student loans wasn’t worth it.
His advice to his younger self, and to other young people considering a state career? Work for the state as soon as you can.
“Your retirement clock starts ticking the moment you join the state,” Russell said. “Get that clock started.”
Newer state workers face higher costs of living, lower pension values
Kayla Tapley, a staff services analyst at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla and Phil Bettencourt’s eldest daughter, shares Russell’s disappointment that she didn’t work for the state earlier. Like Swain, Tapley doesn’t have a four-year degree and has worked her way up from office assistant in just a few years. But since the 37-year-old only started with the state in 2021, she probably won’t be able to think about homeownership for a long time – if ever.
“I always just think to myself, ‘Oh, maybe if I would have pushed myself to get that job … when I was first out of high school,’” Tapley said, “maybe I would have been able to purchase a home when homes were more affordable.”
That remorse pushed Tapley to lobby her 25-year-old sister to get in with the state early. The younger woman was hesitant at first, but after a year of pressure, finally gave in and applied for a position as an office assistant in the same prison as Tapley.
“I would be sending my sister text messages and pictures of my feet by the fire and my drink, like, ‘Hey! I’m enjoying my state holiday!’” Tapley said. “I’m a very good motivator, what can I say?”
Younger state employees also face a longer road to retirement than their predecessors thanks to former Gov. Jerry Brown’s Public Employee Pension Reform Act, or PEPRA. The overhaul changed the formula for retirement so state workers have to work longer before they can collect a pension.
Since Swain joined the state in 2010, she’s considered a “classic” CalPERS member. She’ll be able to retire at age 55 after 30 years of state service and collect a pension worth 60% of her final compensation. But Russell joined the state later and has a less generous pension formula. If he tried to retire at 55 (by then he’d only have 25 years of service), he would only collect a pension worth 36.5% of his final compensation.
State work also isn’t the guaranteed path to homeownership that it might’ve once been.
Median earnings for state government workers have held relatively steady from 1990 through 2022, after adjusting for inflation, U.S. Census data show. By comparison, median home prices in the nearly doubled during that period, after adjusting for inflation, according to data from the California Association of Realtors.
Swain and Russell inherited their home and, if the timing had been different, Swain guesses they wouldn’t have had enough savings to buy a house for at least another five or 10 years.
“If you’re looking at the median price of homes right now and the average state worker salary, they’re not matched — not even close,” said Matt Maglinte, Swain’s older cousin and a retired IT Caltrans IT professional. “Depending upon the group of state workers that you run into, I would say it’s probably a smaller percentage who are saying, ‘I’m in state service right now. That’s my path to home ownership.’”
The next generation of state employees
Still, the state will always be there for anyone whose private-sector career aspirations don’t pan out.
Cyrus Maglinte, Matt’s son and Swain’s cousin, dreamed of designing video games after graduating high school. He joined two different project teams that were trying to launch independent games and apps, but both ventures folded. He’s currently tutoring design students at Sacramento City College and living at home with his parents — both retired state workers — in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood.
He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father and cousins and land a state IT job.
“I do genuinely love my state, and I do find the civil service aspect of serving my state appealing,” he said. “But there’s also a practical reason behind it — the benefits.”
So far he’s applied to a few positions and hasn’t heard back from any of them. But as his family has told him, sometimes it just takes time. He plans to turn up the heat in the next few months before his eligibility exam results expire.
“If I were to get a state position,” he said, “I wouldn’t leave it until retirement.”
The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.