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Brain drain: Advocates fear shutdown could spook best and brightest

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Federal workers demonstrate against the government shutdown in front of the US Capitol in Washington on October 4, 2013.

Could a government shutdown be making the federal government dumber?

Aside from the resulting frustration and uncertain paychecks for hundreds of thousands of federal workers, advocates and experts worry that the shutdown will make the already difficult task of luring talented employees to government jobs – and keeping them there –even tougher.

“This shutdown is sending a very clear message to those who may be considering a federal career: that they might want to think twice about that because of how federal employees get caught in the middle of these political fights,” says Colleen Kelley, the head of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 federal employees over more than 30 agencies and departments.

And, for those who are in the middle of careers as a civil servants – whether in an executive branch office cubicle, a military base, a hospital, or a NASA control room – the exits may be looking more and more attractive.

“The talent pool is shrinking," a Marine Corps officer told NBC News of furloughed workers who deal with logistics and operations. “A lot of civilians are updating their resumes today.”

Federal employees are often caricatured as pencil-pushing clerks with minimal education. While a significant portion – about a quarter – of federal employees don’t have a college education, nearly the same amount have an advanced degree. That includes more than a thousand physicians and Ph.D. researchers at the National Institutes of Health, thousands of researchers at Department of Energy national laboratories that support technology like x-ray synchrotrons, and Mission Control operators for the International Space Station.  An agency few Americans have heard of – the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology – boasts four winners of the Nobel Prize in physics.

Uncertainty is nothing new for the country’s approximately 2.9 million civilian federal employees.

Anger and frustration mounts as the government shutdown continues. With federal employees on furlough and government programs on hold, the impact is spreading across America. NBC's John Yang reports.

An across-the-board federal civilian pay freeze has been in effect for the past three years, and many employees have also been subjected to unpaid furlough days due to the ongoing across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

Still, jobs in the federal workforce are generally regarded by the public as stable and well-paid – a perception that polling indicates sometimes includes public scorn for “lazy” federal employees who are believed to be less capable than private sector workers but get equal or better compensation.

There’s lots of conflicting data about how much federal employees make in comparison to their counterparts in the private sector; various studies use different methods of analysis and count wages and benefits differently.

A 2011 government study found that, across all occupations, federal workers took home paychecks of about 26 percent less than non-federal workers doing comparable work. Within the District of Columbia, that number jumped to 37 percent. But those calculations did not include the value of benefits received other than pay.  The conservative Heritage Foundation calculated in 2010 – incorporating benefits like health insurance and retirement plans – that federal workers are compensated 30 percent more than those in the private sector.

Perhaps the most commonly cited number is from a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report, which estimated that federal workers, on average, received about 16 percent more compensation than private sector employees. But that difference was much higher among workers who did not have any college education. Highly educated federal workers actually took home almost 20 percent less than their counterparts outside the government.

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The impact of the first government shutdown in 17 years was felt across America as offices were shuttered and workers were sent home after lawmakers failed to come to a deal.

That’s the kind of data that worries Max Stier, the president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which works with federal agencies to recruit new employees and coach leaders in the workforce.

For highly educated and motivated young people, Stier says, the pay disadvantage – combined with the growing negative public perception of federal employees –are already deterrents for smart “mission-oriented” millennials who want to help influence public policy but are saddled with substantial student debt.

And a shutdown makes those young people even more wary of how much impact they could really have in a dysfunctional system.

“There’s no place where you can make a greater difference than in the federal government,” he said. “That said, people want to work for an organization where they can achieve those goals and they want to do it in a place there are empowered to achieve those ends. The mismanagement of the federal workforce that Congress is exhibiting just doesn’t make that possible.”

Courtney Kube contributed to this report.

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