Making government service the first choice for more college students

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Lovett, the director of Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers agreed. “The biggest challenge from what I’ve seen, and from our interactions with different government organizations, is that there is not a really great process for entry level hiring in the public sector.”

Though saying “some government agencies do come to campus specifically to hire seniors,” Lovett added, “there isn’t a great pipeline for really talented grads…part of that is because of the decentralization of government…[and] that processes aren’t consistent throughout.”

Relatively little of the work that Lovett does with Harvard undergraduates at the Center for Public Interest Careers is helping students connect with government employment. Instead, Lovett said that about 85 to 95 percent of the work he does at the Center is helping students interested in public service make connections to non-profit agencies.

“Government recruitment and hiring,” Tim McManus, at the Partnership for Public Service, said, “doesn’t operate on a corporate level across government, it is really the responsibility and the work of individual agencies, so you do see huge variability in the way that folks recruit and hire.”

Though several people Remapping Debate spoke with lauded the efforts of federal agencies like the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in recruiting top college graduates, sources also acknowledged that many other agencies do not take “proactive” approaches to recruiting.


Not a new issue

Such passivity is a long-standing concern of the federal government itself. Worried about whether it was attracting enough talented new college graduates, a 1988 U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board report to President Reagan titled, “Attracting Quality Graduates to the Federal Government: A View of College Recruiting,” summed up the problem.

Obama Administration efforts

Since 2010, President Obama has issued Executive Orders and memoranda that have streamlined the federal job application process for all applicants, including college students.

“,” the federal government’s online job portal through which all federal jobs are posted, has been changed to make the application process more similar to that of the private sector, with applicants most often submitting a cover letter and resume, instead of answering short essays.

Additionally, several existing programs for encouraging young people to participate in government — including the “Career Intern” program and the “Presidential Management Fellows Program” — have been placed under a “Pathways” program, which allows students to search for opportunities at these programs with more ease.

The report, which surveyed “selected college and university deans and placement officials” on students’ attitudes about the federal government, confirmed that “the Government is not perceived as an ‘employer of choice’ by many graduates of some of the country’s most highly rated academic institutions.”

Additionally, the report found “little active encouragement on the part of most Federal agencies” concerning potential career opportunities and “little or no on-campus recruitment.”

Tim McManus at the Partnership for Public Service told Remapping Debate that through “some movement has been made…it is still a difficult process to understand, and I think that there is more that can be done to make it a little bit more transparent.” At a hearing before a U.S. House subcommittee charged with federal workforce oversight, in June 2011, McManus submitted a statement that called for the government to make agency leaders more accountable for recruiting, hiring, and talent development, as well as for the collecting and public reporting of data on the hiring process, including applicant satisfaction.

Even for students who know they are interested in pursuing government service, said Lynne Sebille-White, the senior assistant director of employer relations at the University of Michigan’s Career Center, “the biggest roadblock…is learning how to speak government speak and being able to navigate the USAjobs website…so that students who are interested in [government] understand the roadmap to get there, because it is different than corporate postings.”

Further streamlining the application process and increasing the presence of government on college campuses, Steve Ressler told Remapping Debate, are things that ought to be “really easy…to do.”

The promise of making these changes, he added, “is that if you made it clear and simple about how to apply, you would get a ton of great candidates.”


Not just about process

“Clearly,” said Tim McManus, of the Partnership for Public Service, new graduates are actually looking to understand “’how is this opportunity giving me continual growth…and where is this opportunity going to lead me,’” both in terms of skill development and career advancement. The question is, said McManus, “is this something that agencies are addressing in a meaningful way?”

“There are pockets” of federal agencies, he said, that are communicating to college students, throughout their recruiting process — from position descriptions in job ads, to in-person conversations as part of on campus recruiting, and then in interviews — the ways that new hires have an opportunity to learn new skills and articulate where they can be in three to five years. McManus cited the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an example of an agency doing this process well.

Still, McManus said, “there are too many agencies that are looking at [hiring] not from the applicant perspective, but…solely from the employer perspective, which is ‘here is the work you are going to do,’ without being able to articulate ‘and here is what you personally are going to get from this as a result, whether or not you use those skills with us in the long term [or take them to another employer].’”

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