Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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How to attract the best young graduates to your agency, despite the government bashing

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

The steady negative drumbeat regarding government appears to be taking its toll on student attitudes toward federal service.

Working with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), my organization – the Partnership for Public Service – analyzed a survey of more than 35,000 students from nearly 600 colleges and universities, asking about everything from their expectations about their first job to whether they would consider a career in public service. The results were troubling.

Only 2.3 percent of college students surveyed said they plan to work for the federal government, and just 6 percent of students plan to work in any level of government — the lowest percentage since the question regarding government employment was first asked in 2008. This suggests that getting the very best young talent, and in particular those in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, will be a major challenge.

Based on recent federal hiring patterns, my organization estimates that our government will need to hire between 50,000 to 60,000 entry-level employees over the next 12 months even with the budget cutbacks. Most of the hires will fill in behind employees who are leaving government. Federal managers need to better understand students’ expectations and desires, and to tailor recruitment efforts to meet those needs.

I consulted with federal workforce expert John Palguta, my colleague here at the Partnership, on steps you can take to attract top college graduates:

· You can’t sit on your hands, get out there. Sure, you may not be hiring in the same numbers you were a few years ago, but you cannot allow your campus outreach to wither and die as it did for many agencies in the 1990s. Top candidates, especially for STEM occupations, expect high tech, but also high touch. Use your field offices to reach out to local colleges and universities and use executives’ trips into the field as opportunities to visit with students. Don’t just send someone from HR, send someone who is in the type of job you’re trying to fill and who is enthusiastic and articulate.

· Know your audience before making a pitch. Most of the working world is full of stereotypes about what this latest generation wants in their first job – high salary, a flexible work environment and a lot of recognition. That’s wrong, according to the students surveyed. At the top of their list are personal growth opportunities, job security and good benefits. Our federal government is strong on many of these characteristics – even in these tough times – relative to employers in other sectors. Don’t convince yourself that government cannot compete. Use your strengths to make a compelling case for public service.

· Give applicants the big picture. Federal starting salaries may be below those of competing employers, but show applicants what they are likely to be earning in four to five years and how much they could accumulate in their government thrift savings plans, and they may well see that they can largely catch up with their private sector counterparts. 

· Focus on great hires – not just warm bodies. Your goal is to find the very best candidate out there at doing the type of job you are filling. Don’t settle for anything less. If you are doing college recruiting, talk to the faculty and ask them to identify their best students and do active outreach to those students.

· Deliver on the promise. Of course, you need to give newly hired employees the experience you’ve outlined in your recruiting pitch. With little or no resources, you can develop mentoring programs, a speakers’ series or other events focused on supporting new hires’ personal growth. Remember, great hires aren’t useful if they don’t stay.

Have you succeeded in recruiting the best and brightest despite hard times in the past? What are you doing now to overcome negative stereotypes about federal employment? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment or emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Feb 08, 2012 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Wed, Mar 21, 2012

I've been applying ever since I graduated 4 years ago!

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