Foreign Service Jobs Reopening

Cutbacks at the State Department during the Bush administration left the diplomatic corps short on qualified foreign service workers. That changed late in Condoleezza Rice's tenure as Secretary of State, when she was finally able to convince Congress to appropriate funds for additional postings. But before you apply, be sure to brush up on your Arabic, Mandarin, Dari or Russian.

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At a time when few companies are hiring, the federal government maybe a good place to look for work. President Obama's plans to expand domestic programs and enhance foreign diplomacy could lead to ten of thousands of new jobs. Some of those jobs are likely to be with the State Department. From Washington, Daniele Anastasion has the story.

DANIELE ANASTASION: Twenty-six year old Vin Traverso(ph) is shipping out to Afghanistan in October but he won't be fighting the Taliban.

Mr. VIN TRAVERSO (State Department): I'll be sitting at a window in the consular section of the embassy providing services to Americans that, you know, may have ran into some trouble out there, or interviewing Afghans who come in looking for a visa.

ANASTASION: Traverso(ph) is one of hundreds of new hires in the foreign service and he says it's taken him years to get there.

Mr. TRAVERSO: When September 11th happened, I had a lot of friends that were looking for ways to serve our country and to find a way out of this mess. None of us were really sure how we got in here but we knew that it was somehow centered in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, and there was just something wrong.

ANASTASION: Traverso spent the next five years learning Arabic, two of them overseas running a fishing company in Dubai. Now, he's learning Dari for his first tour as a counselor officer in Kabul. But new hires like these have been a rarity at the State Department. John Naland heads the American Foreign Service Association. He says the State Department suffered during the Bush era.

Mr. JOHN NALAND (Head, American Foreign Service Association): Of course, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Congress did not appropriate funds for the foreign service positions there so under Secretary Rice, positions were basically stolen from embassies and offices around the world in order to staff up Iraq.

ANASTASION: Lack of congressional funding has meant a shortfall of staffing and training for diplomats.

Ambassador ROLAND NEWMAN: We're 30 percent short overseas right now of having language-qualified officers in language-designated positions. They're sending people out without languages like soldiers without bullets.

ANASTASION: Roland Newman served as ambassador to Afghanistan until 2007. He says that military efforts there have suffered from lack of civilian support.

Ambassador NEWMAN: I would ask myself how many people we have killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because we don't have the language capability on our military site.

ANASTASION: Harry Thomas is Director General of the Foreign Service and a veteran of Secretary Rice's state department.

Mr. HARRY THOMAS (Director General, Foreign Service, Veteran of Secretary Rice State Department): Well, I can't speak to Ambassador Newman's comments. Again, I have great respect for him. I'd like to see that quantified.

ANASTASION: But even Defense Secretary Gates has lamented the staffing gap at the State Department.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense): Despite new hires, there are only about 6600 professional foreign service officers, less than the manning for one aircraft carrier strike crew.

ANASTASION: A war funding bill last June sought to change that by providing new money for hiring. The State Department has asked Congress for an additional 1500 new positions this year. Harry Thomas...

Mr. THOMAS: I said, what we're acting on now is Secretary Rice's plan. The initial request for this came under Secretary Rice to President Bush in August of 2007. And what Secretary Clinton and President Obama are doing are building and adding to that.

ANASTASION: While there's now widespread acceptance of the need for more diplomacy, the budget request comes at the same time as the financial crisis. Ambassador Newman says there's no question about the cost.

Ambassador NEWMAN: The question is whether you pay for it up front or whether you pay for it downstream by wars, mismanaged funds, waste and fraud. You're going to pay equally. You can pay intelligently or you can pay in disaster.

ANASTASION: Luis Arriaga is director of recruitment at the State Department. He's hopeful that Congress approves the new positions in the coming weeks.

Mr. LUIS ARRIAGA (Director of Recruitment, State Department): We are preparing to start hiring people as quickly as possible. There's, you know, there's a whole disc of languages that we call critical languages that include Arabic, Mandarin, Dari, Farsi, Nepali, Russian, Tajik. There's no secret that we have a growing role in that part of the world.

ANASTASION: Junior foreign service officer Vin Traverso agrees.

Mr. TRAVERSO: You know, whether you're for wars or against wars or for trade or against trade, you're in a place where you can really help our country achieve its objectives in some of the most difficult places on earth.

ANASTASION: For NPR News, I'm Daniele Anastasion in Washington.

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