Making government service the first choice for more college students

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Alongside articulating the potential for career growth and skill development, McManus said that “part of bringing back the prestige and bringing back the fact that it is both cool and really important to consider working for the federal government, you have to be branding yourself as somebody who is highly selective” in order to help attract talented new graduates.

Though McManus agreed that branding this prestige is something that the “government needs to do a better job of,” he pointed to the Presidential Management Fellows Program as an example of a prestigious program already in place at the federal level. The program, which is designed for new graduates with graduate degrees, not bachelors degree holders, attracted over 12,000 applicants last year and accepted just 663 to interview with particular agencies. (Most, but not all of these finalists will find jobs with federal agencies.)

Ultimately, McManus said, “If you are saying at the front end, this is highly competitive. It is not easy to get in. That actually makes some of the process impediments more understandable. And you are willing to endure it as an applicant because, ultimately, you know what they are trying to do is get the absolute best person in the door.”


Local governments lag further

In comparison to local and state recruitment, Rob Carty told Remapping Debate that though it has many agencies, “The federal government is easy because it is big. It is one employer.” Carty, the director of career services and next generation initiatives at the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), cited census figures that show that, depending on how you count them, there are between 38,000 and 90,000 local governments in the U.S., “and they are all different companies if you think about it.”

“Clearly,” said Tim McManus, new grads 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.

Michael Rocco, the executive director of City Hall Fellows, a non-profit organization that partners with cities and places new college graduates in their workforce for one year, focused his concern on the impact of the fiscal environment of the last several years.

“It is fair to say that, particularly under the economic times that we’ve faced, that it has been difficult for local government — or really any level of government — to prioritize recruiting, specifically with an eye for the next generation, while we’ve got so many other dire needs that need to be funded,” Rocco said.

The ICMA does sponsor two “next generation” initiatives aimed at bringing young people into government (both as summer interns and as fellows), but Carty noted, “these are drops in the bucket” in terms of the number of students and graduates they involve, compared with the size of government.

In addition to Michael Rocco’s City Hall Fellows, and the initiatives of the ICMA, a handful of other cities also have selective year-long fellowships in city government, most notably in New York City, where the Urban Fellows program has been in place, and drawing between 20 and 30 fellows since the Lindsay Administration. Still, as Steve Ressler said, “Your average city or state doesn’t have [such programs].”


Replicable practices?

The variability in government efforts at recruiting high-achieving students has produced some examples of programs where prestige and clear processes have attracted top graduates.

When asked which government organizations or entities cooperating with governments were successfully connecting high achieving students (and graduates) with the public sector, those interviewed by Remapping Debate consistently mentioned the efforts of Teach for America (TFA) and the Peace Corps, along with agencies in the national security apparatus, including the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A 2011 survey of college students showed that only 6 percent were planning on working for local, state, or the federal governments.

Over time, “Teach for America basically did the best marketing job of all time,” said Steve Ressler of GovLoop, “They made it somehow cool to teach in rural Alabama or inner-city Chicago…For decades schools couldn’t fill these jobs and now…the best and brightest apply for this.”

Steve Mancini, a spokesperson for TFA, told Remapping Debate that there is certainly “a cachet about being part of Teach for America. It is highly selective, and [participants] will be part of something greater than [themselves].” Additionally, he said, “it is very clear what we are looking for [in applications],” and this “process could also be a factor” in Teach for America’s success. 

Andrew Simmons, at Brown University’s CareerLAB, said of TFA’s application process: “It looks a little bit more like when [students] applied to college. There [are] some criteria that look a little more clear. And there is some structure to it that they can connect with.”

That strategy has paid off. It had a record 57,000 applicants in 2013, an 18 percent increase over 2012. And it is highly competitive: just 15 percent of applicants are accepted.

Such interest in the organization did not happen overnight. Mancini said that attracting this many applicants was something that “took place over time” as the result of the persistence of its staff. Teach for America recruiters, he said, “became very good about getting people interested in the mission…and have constantly recalibrated in how to get the word out [about the program].”

Send a letter to the editor