Agencies struggle to hire technical talent

Survey finds negative fed image hampers recruitment efforts to fill tech jobs

Engineering students at Louisiana State University could easily find jobs in the federal government, but they have compelling opportunities for work in the chemical and biological engineering companies that dot the state.

Another factor that dampens their interest in seeking federal jobs is the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reinforced a negative perception of what the federal government does and how it works.

“When I first talk to students, I tend to get what I like to call their ‘FEMA-face,’ ” said Pam Coltharp, director of the Call to Serve program at LSU. Call to Serve is a program created by the Office of Personnel Management and the Partnership for Public Service to re-establish ties between federal agencies and college and university campuses.

By FEMA-face, Coltharp means the skeptical look students give when she first mentions working in the federal government. Based on the government’s post- Katrina efforts, many LSU students have a negative impression of the federal government. “They didn’t see [the government] work well,” Coltharp said. “But I don’t think it’s turned them off completely. They want more information.”

That lack of information — not a lack of interest — is what prevents most students nationwide from entering public service, according to a new Partnership for Public Service report, released May 3. The report is based on a survey of more than 3,000 college juniors, seniors and graduate students from six universities, including LSU. Agencies are struggling to attract recent graduates. Only 3 percent of the federal workforce is younger than 25. Nearly 44 percent of the federal workforce is set to retire by 2010, which includes 60 percent of Senior Executive Service managers.

The government has many openings in engineering and information technology-related fields. The largest employer of workers in those disciplines is the Defense Department, which employs 82,583 engineers and 29,456 computer scientists and IT specialists. DOD foresees having openings for 12,786 engineers in 2006. A large portion of those openings will be in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a military division familiar to LSU students.

“We need engineers and scientists across the board,” said Sheila Dent, chief of the Employment and Compensation Management Division at the Army Corps of Engineers. “If you’re an engineer or a scientist, it’s very likely you can find a job” with the corps.

The survey, however, found that engineering graduates tend to seek federal employment less frequently than students in other majors do. Only four in 10 engineering students said they were “very” or “extremely interested” in federal job opportunities, while 13 percent said they were “extremely” or “very knowledgeable” about government careers. Only 27 percent had sought out information on government careers.

Engineering students also reported being less concerned than other students about serving their country or community. Only 3 percent said the emotional satisfaction of public service would be a major factor in applying for a government job.

Part of this disinterest in federal employment is the perception that private companies offer more lucrative salaries. The survey, however, found otherwise. Federal engineers earn higher average salaries — as much as $10,000 more — than engineers in private industry. But beyond the issue of salary, the federal government’s biggest barrier in reaching students in tech majors is its negative image. Students perceive that politics and bureaucracy would interfere with their work.

“I am not that politically minded; I have a technical-type brain,” said one LSU engineering student who participated in the survey. Among the engineering students as a whole, 59 percent said government bureaucracy was a major reason not to join the federal workforce.

Simply trying to find out about federal government jobs reinforces students’ impressions of government red tape, Coltharp said. Agency recruitment resources and federal job search Web sites such as USAjobs are too difficult to use, she said. “They’re painful to deal with. They’re not very informative and not student-friendly or new-hire friendly. It’s [students’] first taste of bureaucracy, and it’s unfortunate.”

Students’ perception of the federal government is one of the biggest obstacles to recruiting engineers and other technical employees, according to the survey report. The Partnership for Public Service recommends that agencies emphasize the tangible — not the emotional — benefits of federal employment when they recruit. Students are interested in government jobs with good benefits, challenging work and good job security, the report states. It recommends recruiting via word of mouth and channels of authority, such as friends, classmates, professors and academic advisers.

The Partnership for Public Service concluded in its report that federal agencies must be committed to a sustained investment in recruiting, using trained recruiters and campaigns custom-tailored to specific majors and professions.

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An under-represented demographicThe Partnership for Public Service found that more than half of Hispanic college juniors, seniors and graduate students who responded to a recent survey said they were interested in federal employment. Among minority groups, Hispanic students expressed the highest interest in public service work. Nearly 80 percent of Hispanic students said they valued the benefits and interesting work that government employment offers.

However, Hispanic students were the least knowledgeable respondents in the survey about federal job opportunities, and nearly 42 percent said they feel discouraged from seeking federal employment because they lack knowledge of opportunities.

In a report on its recent survey, the Partnership for Public Service wrote that agencies seeking attract Hispanic students should emphasize the practicalities of federal employment, such as receiving help to repay student loans and having a good work/life balance.

The report also recommends that federal recruiters highlight how individual jobs contribute to an agency’s larger mission.

—Wade-Hahn Chan

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