Baby boomers working in government are beginning to retire en masse and there is critical need to replace them with millennials. Last month, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce held a hearing seeking answers and ideas on how to inspire students to enter the federal service.
“The federal government is the largest employer in the United States and federal service is a noble profession,” said Hawaii Senator and subcommittee chair Daniel Akaka. “Our nation, for the first time in history, is facing a huge retirement wave. The way they surf in Hawaii, we want to take advantage of the wave, and use it wisely as an opportunity to get a good ride.”
Around 273,000 “mission-critical” jobs need to be replaced by September 2012 largely due to retirements, a warning that is hardly new. The average age of a federal employee in 2007—the most recent year with available data—is 47 years old. In 1990, the average age was 42.3 years old.
And despite millions of unemployed Americans looking for work, unemployment is consistently under 5 percent for those with a college degree or higher according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs is growing, particularly in the federal government.
The hearing’s witnesses agreed that attracting top young talent to the federal government is challenging and necessary. Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Social Security Administration Field Operation Locals, characterized hiring the next generation of federal employees as serious because federal employees “are the vital threads of the fabric of American life.” He also praised the Obama administration for “making government service ‘cool’ again.”
There are numerous challenges to attracting qualified students to federal service, including a shortage of skilled talent in areas like nursing, a complicated federal hiring process and increasingly negative rhetoric toward the federal government.
“Unless efforts to destroy the image and middle-class status of federal employees are not halted, it will not make a bit of difference if the Obama Administration creates the best possible recruitment programs,” Skwierczynski noted in his written statement. “A candidate with any sense at all would be reluctant to join a workforce which is constantly being maligned and financially undermined for political purposes.”
Timothy McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service also stressed the level of recent negative discourse toward the government and its consequences. “With anti-government sentiment and fed-bashing on the rise we believe that government may lose its competitive edge that it’s worked so hard to gain over the last several years,” he said at the hearing.
“I think a day doesn’t go by without a story in the newspaper about a fed being overpaid,” McManus told The Nation. “What we’ve seen is the more negative press there is around the federal government the less it is for people to think, ‘Hey, that’s something I want to do.’ ”
As levels of scrutiny toward federal employees increase and rhetoric turns toward cutting benefits and pay, prospective employees will likely be turned off, McManus said.
Some improvements have already been made despite daunting challenges. The witnesses at the panel praised President Obama’s executive order to end the Federal Career Internship Program. While the program did succeed in hiring more than 100,000 federal employees since 2001, it came under fire from unions and veterans’ organizations for “abuses in hiring,” according to John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
In ending this program, the administration aimed to make the hiring process for recent graduates more open, fair and competitive.
Its replacement, the Pathways Programs “will allow the Federal government to compete more effectively with the private sector for promising candidates who may be short on experience, but long on potential,” said Christine Griffin, deputy director of the US Office of Personnel Management. “We think it will be a vehicle through which we can improve diversity of the federal workforce.”
Senator Akaka may have called federal service a “noble profession,” but recent graduates may be entering into less “noble” career paths. A report from the nonprofit Kaufmann Foundation found, for example, that the finance industry has increasingly attracted young talent at the expense of other sectors. The increase of highly complex products increased the need to hire holders of advanced degrees in science, math and engineering. Working for these financial companies could lead to salaries “five times or more what their salaries would have been had they stayed in their own fields and pursued employment with more tangible societal benefits,” the report found.
The news isn’t as disheartening for federal employers as recent surveys of college graduates suggest. A 2010 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reveals that only 39 percent of college graduates put working in a for-profit, private sector job as their primary post-graduate goal. Interest in working in the government and nonprofit sector consistently grew from the 2008 to 2010 survey, with 21 percent of respondents planning to pursue jobs in these areas.
These trends relate to a certain sense of optimism present at the hearing. “While young Americans want to serve, they do not want to serve simply for the sake of service,” said Ann Mahle, vice president for recruitment at Teach for America. “They want to understand that their work has a real, on-the-ground impact.”
“College graduates, to a remarkable degree, want to make a positive impact in their work.”
You wouldn’t guess that by looking solely at some college’s job listings. Cornell University’s daily newspaper’s job board, for example, is remarkably skewed toward companies like Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, Credit Suisse and Deloitte. For a school with robust programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the job listings are overwhelmingly geared toward the private sector. Similarly, Harvard’s paper has numerous listings from, among others, Bank of America, Fidelity Investments and Accenture.
Granted, this foray into college newspaper job listings is hardly a scientific study on the job preferences of Generation Y. But it does speak to the reasonable concept that many graduates want to make quick bucks and plenty of them. With student debt reaching soaring heights, it’s no wonder that there’s a need from students to repay those loans as quickly as possible.
Still, as Mahle accurately suggests, there are hundreds of thousands of soon-to-be and recent graduates who simply want to make a positive impact, including federal service. It will take considerable outreach and marketing from federal agencies and departments to reach out to these young people as well as coordination and training from colleges and universities to facilitate them to these crucial jobs. It would be a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Even in light of the negativity, this is their opportunity to make a difference,” Timothy McManus of the Partnership for Public Service said to The Nation. “It doesn’t matter that you’re looking at issues of housing, or energy or the environment. There’s no bigger stage to make a difference than the federal government.”