Kelman: Agencies have an opportunity to attract young, energetic employees

Economic woes and Obama’s appeal to young people could bring a new workforce into agencies

Government service can draw people in, but it can easily turn them out again, too. Today, however, the combination of economic troubles in the private sector and President Barack Obama’s appeal to young people provides a new window of opportunity for agencies to hire bright, talented workers.

In his great book "The Warping of Government Work," which I've written about before, my colleague John Donahue told the story of David Agnew, a former student at the Kennedy School.

Donahue had hired Agnew as a special assistant while working at the Labor Department during the Clinton administration, and he describes Agnew as a young man who “lived and breathed public service.” But government work soured for him, and he went on to co-found a real estate development company.

Donahue spoke to Agnew some time later and wrote that he found the young man “as public-spirited as ever, but when he talks about his time in Washington, it’s with a tinge of cynicism wholly alien to his nature.” Government work wasn’t as exciting as he wanted, the people not as good, and the salary, after a while, was too low.

But Agnew has now re-entered government in a White House post, Donahue told me. The government has managed to entice him to return.

He’s not the only young professional who has come to see the government as an attractive employer. Recently, a student in the graduate program in logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with an electrical engineering undergraduate degree from Stanford, came to talk to me about working in government. It’s probably not a coincidence that I’m getting such a visit when the private-sector job market is the way it is. Visits to the Web site have doubled compared to a year ago, and agencies are getting many more applicants for each job than they once did.

As the combination of factors draws more younger workers into government, agencies need to start acting right now to retain them. Retention means that government must offer new recruits interesting, meaningful jobs. That means taking a chance on giving new employees challenging assignments — often as part of a team, to reduce risk and increase learning opportunities — sooner rather than later. It means unhesitatingly reminding new recruits of the public-spirited missions their organizations are performing. And it means doing a better job creating good first-line supervisors than government has done in the past.

Many of those about to retire from government service were attracted into government in the first place by President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve. That call turned into a window of opportunity for government to attract bright, talented employees. This was, admittedly, a different era. In the early 1960s, the gap between government and private-sector salaries for top professionals was much less than it is now. Federal pension benefits were more attractive — and put more of a golden handcuff on people — and employees were more likely to stay in one job for a lifetime.

Nonetheless, the economic crisis and appeal of the new administration to young people provide a new window. The sea of young faces at Obama’s inauguration told a powerful story.

If government can get its act together, we just might be able to get a new generation into government service before all the members of the old generation leave.

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. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve


  • Comment
    Pilot Class. The author and Barbie Flowers are first row third and second from right, respectively.

    How VA is disrupting tech delivery

    A former Digital Service specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs explains efforts to transition government from a legacy "project" approach to a more user-centered "product" method.

  • Cloud
    cloud migration

    DHS cloud push comes with complications

    A pressing data center closure schedule and an ensuing scramble to move applications means that some Homeland Security components might need more than one hop to get to the cloud.

  • Comment
    Blue Signage and logo of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

    Doing digital differently at VA

    The Department of Veterans Affairs CIO explains why digital transformation is not optional.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.