Kelman: The war for talent

The private sector is stealing government’s thunder, even at the Kennedy School

The academic year has gotten started again after summer break, and students have settled into classes here at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

One morning soon after the students returned — even before classes began — I was surprised to pass by our career services bulletin board and see that a large number of informational meetings for students who will be graduating in June were already being advertised. What was depressing was the sponsors of the meetings. Consulting firms such as Bain, McKinsey, Accenture, Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte and several smaller, niche consulting firms along with Morgan Stanley, UBS, Lehman Brothers and a few other major financial firms far outnumbered the few government agencies present on campus. There were only three U.S. government-sponsored informational meetings: for the FBI, the CIA and the Presidential Management Fellows program.

So the private sector is stealing government’s thunder, not just at a business school but even at the Kennedy School, which seeks to train students for public service.

Private-sector jobs pay more, and there is little government will be able to do about that. But many private-sector job offers are also made far earlier than those from government. Government agencies often appear at the Kennedy School, if they come at all, after the new year, when many private-sector firms have already made offers. And the best private firms keep in contact regularly via e-mail with job applicants from Harvard. This keeps students informed about the progress of their applications and when they can expect to get a final decision.

Government’s failures here are largely self-inflicted. If we take dealing with the government’s workforce crisis seriously, let’s start acting as if we care about attracting bright, ambitious, idealistic students to government service. And how about sooner rather than later?

The Sept. 18 issue of BusinessWeek featured an article called “The Best Places to Launch a Career,” about the most attractive employers for newly minted college graduates. The message of the article is highly consistent with what I hear from my students: “If one thing sets apart the Top 50 employers,” the article notes, “it’s their ability to give entry-level employees new opportunities early and often.”

Students want interesting jobs, and they want to be able to take responsibility, not get lost as a number in a bureaucracy. According to the article, 27 percent of undergraduates now list “contributing to society” as a top career goal. That is an advantage for government, yet most agencies simply don’t exploit it.

Government doesn’t just need to be quick on the mark. It needs to offer jobs that are challenging and meaningful enough to retain the young people it hires.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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