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By Steve Kelman

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Young feds are coming up fast

At the closing dinner for the executive education program we teach at the Kennedy School for federal GS-15s (and military counterparts), I sat next to Steve Varnum, a 31-year-old GS-15 from the General Services Administration Public Buildings Service. Varnum had promoted to the grade last year at age 30. He reflects in a dramatic way the generational transformation beginning to occur in the government, and I was eager to get his reflections on how he had been able to rise so fast.

After majoring in information technology management in college and graduating in 2002, Varnum took his first job with a government contractor that did work for GSA. However, after only two years with the contractor, he switched over to GSA, because he felt that GSA provided a clearer path for professional development and growth than the contracting industry. He also recognized the significance of public service, and felt his skills and abilities could be applied effectively to make the agency more efficient.

As I listened to him tell his story, there were two things that seemed important in terms of his fast rise within the organization. One involved his own personal career management, the other his supervisors and managers.

In terms of his own personal career management, Varnum had clearly thought explicitly and strategically about getting opportunities to interact with people in the agency outside his own part of the organization, to develop contacts and opportunities in cross-stovepipe contexts. He clearly thought that this would signal his broader, agency-wide perspective and distinguish him from colleagues who just had their noses to the grindstone of their own narrow work.

When he spoke of his supervisors and managers, he was enthusiastic. He said his immediate supervisor never felt threatened by a young, aggressive subordinate coming up with new ideas and suggestions. On the contrary, his supervisor was eager to work with the young employee, realizing that benefits from implementing his ideas would be a credit to the supervisor as well as the employee.

For example, Varnum recognized that one of the organization's key performance measures was masking issues within the program. The measure had two major components, but they appeared in reports as an aggregate. Varnum realized that combining two calculations into one metric was allowing the high- performing piece to hide the negatives of the low-performing piece.

Varnum suggested breaking apart the measure into two separate items so that the weaknesses of the low-performing aspect would be exposed and could be improved. Instead of feeling threatened by Varnum's suggestion, his supervisors welcomed and embraced it.

Second, his supervisors over the years had been quick to give him opportunities to do things that were too hard or that put him in over his head. Just recently, his several-levels above boss asked him to take charge of a briefing to the GSA administrator. Varnum told me he was terrified, afraid he would make a lot of mistakes and embarrass himself. But everything worked out ok, and it turned out to be a real learning experience.

There are too many people around federal workplaces who feel threatened by the young people coming on board -- and probably some young people who act like the know-it-all's they are often accused of being. I'm wondering whether any young, or senior, feds have experiences or lessons learned about how to create a more-productive interaction at the workplace between new and older employees?

Posted on Dec 08, 2011 at 12:09 PM


Reader comments

Tue, Aug 13, 2013 Fed Guy Washington, DC

I worked as a contractor for about 6 years after leaving the military in 2007. I gained all the experience I current possess by learning from other federal programs and being placed in the line of fire. I applied for and was accepted to be a GS-14 at 33 years old. This is an exciting change due to being able to make decisions, rather than just providing advice and recommendations. The SES employees welcome me, but other older GS 13s and below are not happy with my presence. The program has had a huge turn around and has many acting 15 positions. These positions will be advertised within the next 12 to 18 months. I definitely will apply for a few of the 15s, which will place me at GS-15 at 34 or 35 years old. I guess this isn't incredibly young, but much younger than I typically see in the Federal Government. I think what I bring to the table is an unwillingness to give up and a deep desire to "get it right", instead of adapting the "it's good enough for government work" mentality. It's my goal to make the program work as efficiently as possible, while teaching others what I know, in order to progress their careers and strengthen the organization.

Fri, Jan 25, 2013

I am a 29 year old GS14 and about to put in for my supervisors GS15 when he leaves in a month. I am the individual in my office of 65 people who is typically assigned the most difficult crises to manage and I have excelled. I have not put in the time in grade that others have, and once in a while I see that people are threatened by my age. Obviously, I have expereinced less crises than my older counterparts, although I have proven to my management that I am better able to manage and resolve the crises than others. I hope that my management and others in governement continue to be open minded and embrase the rise of the energetic, driven younger generation.

Mon, Dec 19, 2011

I think the comments that the previous comments are valid in an organization that can honestly groom personnel to be managers and supervisors. What I see where I am in government, is a lot of whites at the top and peopel of color at the bottom no matter how smart or skillful thery are. An internal study was done and this instutional racism was noted as a problem. Yet 13 years later, it still exists. There is a general fear of whites of a person of color managing a government enterprise. This is why they are appointed. Younger employees that I have seen are usually Persidential Management Fellows that do not have a complete understanding of operations but they will usually get promoted to GS-15 and not have any sense of the people who over the years have sacrificed and given generously to the organization their time and expertise so that the business of customer service can go forward. It seems that most of these PMF's are too busy trying to get to GS-15 and hurting the overall function of the office as they go. In the military, there is a natural progression to management and if you are not fit you are "weeded out". The PMF and other programs are good when the people involved are balanced personally and understand they are "public servants". Then add to the equation that almost none of them have ever served in a service capacity. This is whay I will leave government service to do my own company. I see that the powers that be have instituted the broken "Corporate America" model to public service and have instituted a master and slave realtionship with their employees.

Sat, Dec 17, 2011 Diplomat Arlington

I think the GS levels really depend on the agency as well. My agency, like most, had a program for entry-level 1102s that involved training milestones and rotations. They would start at GS-7 and after a year be bumped to a 9 and then onto a grade 11. From there, a one-grade increase to 12 and onto 13. I am finding that most of the younger 1102s are coming in with graduate degrees and they are older than before. A lot of our entry-level 1102s are 25, 26 and even 27 years old. Most have a bit of experience in other fields and aren’t considered “green” compared with some 22-year old fresh out of a 4-year program. Last year, my agency gave out a ton of 14s to a number of people who weren’t really in the position to be earning a 14. A good number of these folks were under 30 and without graduate degrees, but with 4/5 years of 1102 experience under their belts. I can’t say that any of these folks are exceptional or that they stand out in in manner. What gets me is that most of these newly-minted 14s aren’t managing people or groups. I was under the impression that a GS-14 1102 position involved some form of supervisor duties.

Wed, Dec 14, 2011

Keep in mind that one reason the youngsters are advancing so quickly is that they start at higher grade levels than they used to. In the 1970s, most contracting trainees started as GS-5, with a very few starting at GS-7. Thus, with a minimum of one year in grade it took them 10 to 11 years to make GS-15. Today they are starting as GS-9s, 11s, and even 12s. Whether advancement to GS-14 or 15 in five years or less and at the age of 30 is a good thing in the long run remains to be seen. It may be good for the individual, but not necessarily for the organization. There is less "seasoning," and some people think that grade reflects knowledge and competence, which is also not necessarily the case.

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