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By Steve Kelman

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Taking the pulse of Harvard graduating seniors

I went to a reception last night for graduating seniors at one of the Harvard undergrad residences. I spent a good deal of the evening asking seniors about what was going on in the job market. Here's what I learned.

First, apparently many seniors still don't have jobs. The job situation is a little better than last year, but not great. Hiring by investment banks ("i-banking" as the kids call it) is up a bit, but hiring by consulting firms is still very weak. I was surprised that two of the students I spoke with (out of a total of maybe eight) were planning to get Ph.D.'s -- one had already been accepted in a graduate program in theoretical physics, and the other was going to earn some money doing S.A.T. tutoring before applying for a Ph.D. in English. Both of the students were women. Although I didn't meet any, apparently some Harvard seniors will be taking advantage of an opportunity that, as best as I can tell, guarantees that any work-willing graduating senior from a good American school need never go unemployed -- namely, going to Asia to teach English.

Apparently close to 20 percent of Harvard graduating seniors have applied for Teach for America, a truly astounding percentage, although of course not all will be accepted and not all those accepted will take the jobs. The kids I spoke to expressed some skepticism about these huge numbers, noting that Teach for America temporarily seemed to have replaced "i-banking" as a resume jewel, but feeling this would not survive the economic downturn.

One student who was going to work for a hedge fund told me that "the work I will do adds very little if any social value," but that the culture of the firm prescribed rather modest workdays of only 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., leaving him spare time to work on setting up a non-profit that represented something about which he could get excited.

While we were talking about Teach for America, I asked a group of students if they considered work for the government to be "public service" -- the Partnership for Public Service has pointed out that many college students see only non-profit work as public service. To my pleasant surprise, all three of the students said that they did consider government work to be public service, and all said they could definitely imagine working for government at some point, although none of them knew any graduating seniors who were going to work for government.

Posted on May 25, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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Reader comments

Fri, May 28, 2010 Mike Derrios Arlington, VA

I don't disagree with Joe that some federal agencies probably have subpar resources and offer less than meaningful work assignments. However, I believe it's all about where you go in the federal government. I have a similar background (former Air Force and a stint with private sector) but my experience in the federal space has been much different. That's partly due to the fact that I work for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Office of Acquisition - shameless plug. As most know, TSA's mission was born out of the 9/11 tragedies and the majority of our employees feel like they have a tangible impact on the success of operations. The level of employee engagement is actually very high. There are many agencies and career paths in the federal government that offer an entrepreneurial environment where ideation is fostered and innovation is welcomed. You just have to do your homework and make sure you're interviewing them just as carefully as they're interviewing you. Our organization just finalized a strategic recruitment plan and one of the key elements is planting seeds with potential employees BEFORE they become potential employees. This involves getting into colleges and even high school groups like the Future Business Leaders of America to tout federal service as a viable career option. It won't yield much fruit in the near term but it will help to influence the academic paths of interested people, sometimes before they even get into college, so that they can align themselves with a federal employment tract. That's the only way to build a good hiring pipeline to ensure continuity of government - especially for the 1102 series. There are many people with antiquated mindsets who are proverbially "Retired In Place" in the government but the good thing about that is the forthcoming mass exodus that will include a large portion of those same people. That will leave fertile grounds for change. I would urge someone like Joe to position himself by leading from his current level of the organization (no matter whether it's entry, journeyman or senior) in order to take advantage of those opportunities to make things different when they arise. I believe one of the best things that the current administration is doing is elevating the status of federal employment and trying to remove barriers to entry so that the best and brightest decide to come. The inception of Government 2.0 needs people that aren't afraid to point out problems but also those that are willing to create solutions. Hope you decide to stay with it, Joe!

Wed, May 26, 2010 Joe DC

As a recently hired federal employee who came into the U.S. Government after stints in the military, management consulting firm, and a non-profit, I find the notion of recruiting the best and the brightest from elite institutions such as Harvard for civil service careers, as opposed to temporary political appointees, as utterly laughable. From my short time in the federal government thus far, the one word that I would use to describe my work environment is "primitive". The physical space itself is old and decrepit. The IT infrastructure is so old (Windows 2K, MS Office 2000, etc.) that we can't even read documents sent from within our OWN department. But most of all, what kills me is the mindset of the senior career employees in both management and non-management positions who equate attendance with work and seem to be trying to keep their head down (translated as risk avoidance) and just kill time until retirement. Although I applaud Steve Kelman, the Partnership for Public Service, and others' for trying to recruit top candidates for public service, the reality is that the incentives to pursue, and more implortantly to stay, in the federal civil service, are simply not there. While monetary incentives may sway fence-sitting applicants from top schools to not apply for federal service, boring work, poor work environments, obsolete IT infrastructure, risk averse leadership, and lack of career development opportunities will force them to leave.

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