Making government service the first choice for more college students

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Though the program does not rely on summer internships for undergraduates, the way that many consulting and finance industry firms do, Mancini said that Teach for America now holds meetings on campus for first year and sophomore students to “increase awareness both of Teach for America and about education” and has now created a pilot program for allowing students committed to joining the organization to apply during the spring of their junior year in college (to join the organization after graduating).

“Our biggest challenge…is getting a local city to commit to fund people.” — Michael Rocco

Teach for America, Mancini said, is an organization that “promotes leadership development” and communicates that to its applicants, telling them that they have an opportunity to make an impact both inside classrooms and outside classrooms after they complete their two-year commitment to TFA.

Tim McManus, at the Partnership for Public Service, said that such an emphasis on honing leadership is attractive for college grads. “What we have found,” he said, is that “the opportunity to grow and develop” is “most attractive to college and university students.”

Teach for America’s recruiting process also relies on current and former TFA teachers interacting with candidates on campuses. McManus, speaking to Remapping Debate about best practices in attracting students, said such a strategy is important because they “can actually bring their own experience to the table. It is not just ‘here is what I do,’ but ‘here is what I’ve learned,’ and ‘here is what I’ve developed along the way,’ and ‘here is where I am now.’”

Such persistent recruiting and simplified process are not only the province of Teach for America. The Peace Corps currently has 8,000 volunteers in service. In an email responding to questions from Remapping Debate, a Peace Corps spokesperson wrote that the organization uses campus recruiters, social media, and a network of faculty members, student organizations, and program alumni to recruit on campus. It also, the spokesperson said, has recently simplified the application process, so that applicants can track their progress through each stage of the process.


The challenge: being more proactive, generating more cooperation

When it comes to recruiting, said Steve Condrey, the president of the American Society for Public Administration, state and local government have traditionally been more passive. “Part of the solution is to be a bit more active” in recruiting, he said. “But then again,” Condrey added, “public agencies don’t have the budget for recruitment.”

Kristin Conner, an assistant director at Stanford University’s Career Development Center, told Remapping Debate that a recruiting strategy that “makes sense for government,” especially for smaller, local governments, would be to work cooperatively with other governments to “create a more powerful punch on a campus in reaching out to students.” This would allow them to have a larger presence on campus than would be possible on their own, she said.

It is easy to imagine that the decision not to invest in making government service a first choice for more students is powerfully consequential.

She cautioned, however, “if they don’t have any opportunities,” then such a marketing push could “create sort of a negative reaction, because if you constantly have students coming at your organization saying I want to work for you, and they say, ‘oh I’m sorry we aren’t hiring right now,’ that doesn’t help.”

Some of this cooperation is already underway in isolated cases. Both Stanford’s Conner and ICMA’s Rob Carty referenced a program in northern California where the county governments of San Mateo and Santa Clara have cooperated in created a common portal for summer internships and job opportunities across the region for young people.

Frank Benest, a former city manager in Palo Alto, California has been instrumental in the establishment of this “Next Gen Silicon Valley” initiative. He said that though it was important to make the process simpler (through their one application and job portal), advertising the ability for career advancement and skill development is also crucial for attracting graduates.

Benest said a big part of the battle in attracting new talent is in “branding” local government as a place “where you can make a difference in your own backyard,” and in accentuating the “learning, growth, and challenges of our job.”

“I think…this regional program in California has a lot of potential,” Carty said, “but, if a group of universities wanted to get together and create the one [application]” that any government organization “could tap into…that would be a great service for everybody.”

Ultimately, for Andrew Simmons, the Brown University Center for Careers director, “What I would say to government is what I would say to any employer, which is the more straightforward your process, the more structured your process, the more out in the open it is, and the more you come in and talk to students, the better your outcomes are going to be.”


The funding squeeze

Several people who Remapping Debate spoke with pointed out that state and local budget cuts —  which according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany have resulted in over 680,000 job losses since 2008 — remain a central challenge for local government actively encouraging new graduates to seek employment in this sector.

“Our biggest challenge [at City Hall Fellows],” said that organization’s Michael Rocco, “is getting a local city to commit to fund people…but American government just has not been in a financial position to really say, ‘Yes, let’s invest for ten years down the road when these [new graduates] are rising up to the level of either senior staff or department heads.’” 

It is easy to imagine that the decision not to invest in making government service a first choice for more students is powerfully consequential.


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