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

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Reader comments

Fri, Mar 27, 2009 Longtime Fed

I find it laughable, but also sad, after four plus decades of Federal service and observing the mores and idiosycracies of the Federal bureaucracy that all these young, idealistic kids really think they're going to have a chance "to make a real difference" if they can successfully navigate the treacherous shoals of the Federal hiring process. The reality is that most government work offers little opportunity for creativity and new ideas, and is all too often mind-boringly numbing. The very nature of the process by which current Federal senior career managers elbowed their way - ever so decorously - to the top - and the low incentives and high risks associated with any "breaking of ranks" guarantees that lip service will all that will be paid to those seen as posing a threat to the old, cozy ways of the bureaucracy. Disillusionment, as ever, awaits the young.

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