Making government service the first choice for more college students

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

June 26, 2013 — After listening to speeches, posing for photos, and receiving their diplomas over the last several weeks, the top new graduates of the nation’s well-regarded public and private universities who are not headed back into classrooms as graduate students will be flocking toward their first post-college jobs. For many of these top-tier students, those jobs will be at consulting, finance, or tech companies. Why?

It is not as though public service employers or facilitators can’t do a better job of attracting more top candidates, but rather that many do not.

This article is not about the phenomenon of a Gordon Gecko-esque culture where the fact and the panache of material benefits swamp all other considerations for job seekers, nor is it an exploration of the broad decline in recent decades in the cultural cachet of public service.

It is about what our reporting confirms are three crucial factors that collegiate job seekers, not surprisingly, find appealing: a structured application process, prestige, and opportunities for skill development and career advancement. Finance, consulting, and tech provide them; for the most part, public sector employers do not.

It is not as though public service employers or facilitators can’t do a better job of attracting more top candidates — NASA attracts a slew of talented candidates, and Teach for America had 57,000 applicants this year — but rather that many do not.

Part of that problem is fixable, we found, if agencies followed the lead of aggressive private sector (and, less frequently, public sector) recruiting at universities. Additionally, more cooperation between and among different federal, state, and local employers; between and among colleges; and between and among colleges and government employers would also be a boon.

But the brakes that have been put on government spending across-the-board act as a fundamental constraint. That constraint limits significantly the ability of such employers to offer clear, steady, and, ultimately, prestigious first-choice options.

Thus, while many would say that lack of environmental and other regulatory enforcement, the dearth of affordable housing, and the broadening and deepening of poverty are among the most important consequences of the squeezing of governments, it would appear that a whole generation of high-achieving students — and the institutions they are not serving — may belong on the victim list, too.


How do those firms do it?

Large finance and consulting firms have been especially good at attracting talented students from elite colleges. “It is definitely not necessarily that the ‘smartest’ at [elite] institutions go to Wall Street,” but that these industries have “saturate[d] the space of the ‘next step,’” according to Karen Ho, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and author of the book, “Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.”

“If you look at which students go to Wall Street, it is often those who are undecided,” she added.

Unlike governmental employers, “The KPMG recruiter…is there knocking on their door, or the CitiBank recruiter…is there kind of pinching them.” — Steve Ressler

Ho said that through aggressive on-campus recruiting, firms cultivate the sense among their potential employees that “Goldman [Sachs] is the Harvard of Wall Street…and so, in order to continue Harvard after Harvard…the only thing you can do is go to Goldman [Sachs]. Very few institutions have been able to make that link.”

Remapping Debate contacted nearly a dozen large, well-known consulting, finance, and technology firms to inquire about the importance of their recruiting process in attracting talented new graduates. Most declined to comment or did not return repeated requests for interviews.

Goldman Sachs did respond to emailed questions. Its representative wrote back that part of its success in recruiting new graduates lay in the firm’s ability to show to students that they offer both “a long-term career platform” and  “world class training and professional development” that “often lays the groundwork for any career path, which is important to many of our candidates.”

Being able to offer both practical opportunities for advancement and training that can be transferred to other jobs should a new worker (or the firm) choose to end the employment, is, of course, attractive. Ultimately, “the finance industry and the consulting industry…do a really good job of actually branding themselves as being a really great place to work,” said Tim McManus, the vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, an organization that promotes public service through government employment.

“They spend a lot of time on campuses,” McManus said.

Travis Lovett, the director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Interest Careers, told Remapping Debate that finance jobs “are highly competitive positions. When you introduce [the] element of competition to a group of students who have been used to competing for various things…up through high school and into college. That element of competition — whether it’s real or artificial — creates a sense of prestige.”

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