The federal government’s worsening millennial talent gap

Blame outdated hiring practices, says Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier.

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Polls show that, compared to other generations, millennials believe in an active federal government.

Most millennials favor a “bigger government providing more services,” finds the Pew Research Center, while another survey by Deloitte finds that millennials overwhelmingly support government’s potential to solve such pressing problems as climate change and income inequality.

Yet only 7 percent of current federal workers are under age 30 – the lowest share in almost a decade. Why are so few millennials working in federal government?

Broken hiring practices are to blame, says Max Stier, President of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “A lot of millennials are interested in government,” Stier says, “The problem is our government doesn’t pull them in.”

One major hurdle, Stier says, is the government’s preference for experience over talent, which shuts out eager – but novice – millennials. “The government’s model is to find people who’ve done the work before rather than [people] who can do the work best,” says Stier.

Stier proposes one simple solution: Expand federal student internship programs. “The federal government brings in a tiny number of its entry-level hires through student internships,” Stier says. “But there’s no substitute for 8-to-12 weeks of hands-on experience to understand what a person is like in a work environment.”

Building a larger intern talent pipeline, says Stier, would bring a “sea change” in the number of millennial recruits. The Partnership is also working on college campuses – with efforts such as its Call to Serve initiative and its “Federal Student Ambassadors” program – to interest more young Americans in government service.

With nearly half of all federal workers nearing retirement age, Stier argues that an influx of fresh talent can’t come soon enough.

The lack of robust internship programs is one problem you highlight with current federal hiring practices. What else makes it tougher for younger workers to enter government?

Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Service

Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Service

Stier: Certainly sequestration and budget cuts have had an impact on hiring, and that shrinkage is quite consequential. Unfortunately, the real challenge is that government doesn’t have a process to fully weight the real advantages millennials bring to the workplace.

You have a civil service system for hiring, pay and firing that was largely designed 60-plus years ago. It doesn’t meet the needs of the current world and certainly not of the future. You need a much more simplified hiring process – one that allows for targeted recruiting and bringing people in very quickly, and that uses standards and techniques that people expect in any other context. If the federal government has a hiring process that doesn’t mirror what people experience when they’re hired by a nonprofit or by a corporation, it diminishes their appetite to go into government.

A fair amount of the contracting the government does is a result of the broken hiring process. If you can’t hire people in as full-time employees, you can hire them as contractors to get the work done, even if it’s not the most cost-effective or the best way to do it over the long term. It’s a workaround that’s very costly for the federal government.

What unique traits do millennial workers bring to government?

Stier: Millennials are clearly much more technologically savvy, and the government has increasingly fallen behind – not only in the technology it uses to serve the public but in the technology it uses to complete its own processes internally.

The collaborative nature of the millennial generation is something that’s also very powerful and – frankly – a challenge to the old hierarchical model that now dominates government. Millennials are also more diverse, [which] is something we need more of in the federal government.

What about public perceptions of government service? Do parents of millennials think it’s a good career move?

Stier: The biggest problem is that government doesn’t know what’s good for itself, and it’s not hiring the millennials who are out there to be hired.

But it would be better if more millennials wanted to go into government. The attitude the public has toward government – the barrage of negative news stories, the attacks by politicians, the seeming dysfunction in a number of agencies – clearly undermine millennials’ desires to go into government as well as parents’ notions that it’s a good thing to do.

How are the Partnership’s efforts, such as Call to Serve and the Federal Student Ambassadors program, working to attract more young people to government?

Stier: The federal government operates as a collection of highly diverse and disconnected agencies – there are literally over 100 organizations that operate on their own. But they have a common interest in attracting the best talent from our nation’s colleges and university campuses.

That was the genesis of Call to Serve, which now covers more than 800 colleges and universities. It’s a collective asset for the whole government and a way of communicating with a large group of talent aggregators – universities and colleges – with one face.

But as important as it is to get information out to colleges and universities, much of our work is really focused on trying to help agencies understand best-practice recruiting.

In the Student Ambassadors [program], we take interns that have worked in the federal government and train them to be recruiters [on] college campuses. That’s been a phenomenal program.

In the agencies where we have Student Ambassadors, the agencies have been able to draw both a higher caliber as well as larger set of talented individuals into the agency. It’s a small investment that yields a very large return.

The peer-to-peer relationship is more powerful than having the Cabinet Secretary going to a university campus, and you can use this approach to draw specialized talent, like engineering.

The federal government is the largest employer of engineers in the country, and if you ask what’s the biggest talent need the government has right now, it’s probably cyber and [information technology (IT)]. Most people in the academic world think of government [as recruiting] from public policy schools, but that’s actually not right. The federal government is a premier, knowledge-based organization that requires the best in class in pretty much every profession.

What’s your argument to millennials that they should consider government service?

Stier: If you want to make change, the opportunity for impact is higher in the government than it is anywhere else. People are doing phenomenally innovative and important work.

One of my favorite examples is [Hamid Jafari], who essentially helped eradicate polio in India. You tell me any individual who has had more impact than that. And what it required was this vastly innovative work to reach millions of migrant workers and kids and figuring out what their patterns of movement were. It was a huge effort that resulted in getting rid of one of the worst diseases in one of the most populous countries on our planet.

Look at any headline in the news, and the federal government is likely going to be central to resolving that problem. To be able to contribute to that is unbelievably powerful.

[Second] is the breadth of opportunity once you get into an organization. People say [government service] is “stodgy,” but that doesn’t have to be the case. One of the greatest sources of learning is to have ownership and responsibility. That’s something you can find in government above and beyond what’s the norm in the private sector.

And you can feel good about what you’re doing, which is pretty powerful too.

Max Stier is President of the Partnership for Public Service. 

Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0. 

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