Kelman: Hiring outside of the box

The federal government community continues to be abuzz about an impending retirement wave, with worries that government won’t be able to recruit good people to do mission-critical work. Contractors often say that the strongest argument for contracting government activities is that the government simply won’t be able to get the people it needs – a sort of desperation-based approach that has always struck me as an unfortunate argument. Don’t contractors have anything more to offer than bodies the government can’t get?

Unfortunately, to a certain extent, the contractors’ argument is correct. More unfortunately, it comes from a self-inflicted government wound.

Faced with hiring worries, there’s evidence some agencies are thinking creatively about places to look for talent. What got me thinking about this was an article recently published in the Federal Times about the Army creating a thousand new contracting positions. Where to find them? “What we’re trying to do,” Jeff Parsons, head executive director of the Army Contracting Command was quoted as saying, “is to target specialty areas like Detroit, where the automotive industry isn’t doing so well. Some people up there work as buyers for the car manufacturers, and you might get some of those people to come in.”
Sounds like an interesting approach.

There are other examples of creativity in hiring. For a number of years, the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia, part of the Defense Logistics Agency, has targeted graduating seniors at historically black colleges. The center’s idea is that government, and government service, has a more positive reputation in minority communities — think of the role of government in reducing discrimination and increasing opportunities for minorities — and at these institutions, government has easier access to the top of the graduating class.

For the past few years, the FBI, and now the Secret Service, has introduced a bold program to recruit outstanding graduates from places such as the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

These agencies are seeking to recruit an elite team of analysts and managers, and they are offering newly minted master’s students General Schedule 13 levels, loan repayment and even a signing bonus.

In most agencies, graduating Kennedy School students are hired into the government at the GS-9 level.
More broadly, it has been my view for a number of years that agencies should encourage midcareer, say 30-something, professionals in the private sector to give a few years of public service to the government. These people would from be assumed to be leaving after a few years, but they could help boost some of the scarce skill areas the government has.

That approach has been advocated by the Partnership for Public Service, an organization that seeks to attract a new generation into government work.

Kelman (steve_kelman@harvard.edu) is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

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