On the front lines: How agencies recruit young feds

The ongoing fiscal pressures and bipartisan squabbling over pay and benefits may have created a hostile environment for federal employees, but it hasn't deterred young people from pursuing a career in government, at least as the acting administrator of the General Services Administration sees it.

“I haven’t seen any diminution in interest among young people in making contributions to public service; I’ve actually seen that increase,” said Dan Tangherlini, GSA's temporary head. “While this partisanship make it harder for us to get things done, the desire for things to be done [and] the desire to serve government, I just see that continuing to increase.”

Tangherlini, along with officials from the departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Transportation, spoke at a May 8 town hall meeting hosted by the Partnership for Public Service. The event coincides with the Public Service Recognition Week, a nationwide effort to recognize government employees.

The potential barriers to hiring aren't just the internal policies that affect federal employees' on the job. Although it was not discussed at the event, a recent Pew Foundation survey found that more than half of Americans think the federal government is corrupt, a finding that prompted concern about agencies' ability to hire young professionals.

DHS has launched outreach initiatives with higher education to tap into talent found at colleges and universities nationwide, offering students or recent graduates internships and fellowships, Secretary Janet Napolitano said.  
 
“But our chief challenge is finding the people who want to work in the security area, getting them in and training them,” she said.

To get young people in the door at HHS, the agency has taken what its leader described as a Peace Corps-like approach to recruit health care providers. HHS tripled its number of National Health Service Corps members by offering loan repayment and scholarships to those who work in underserved areas, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. 

With the retirement wave inching closer, Sebelius said HHS is working to ensure it has enough talent to replenish the exiting baby boomers and then keeping those employees for the longer term.

“I think we need to take succession planning very seriously and recruit that talent,” she said.

At the Transportation Department, mentorships and internships have proven particularly useful to fill key positions and facilitate the institutional-knowledge transfer. Senior managers, for examples, are tasked with finding one younger employee they can mentor, said Secretary Ray LaHood.

Another way for agencies to attract young talent is to offer them flexibility. GSA, for example, is “pushing very hard” on telework and other flexible work arrangements “to strike that balance between home and work,” Tangherlini said.

Whether it’s telework or flextime, job sharing or modified schedules for parents, a strategy should recognize that no employee needs to choose between family or career, Sebelius said.

“That’s one of the things government actually can offer, sometimes ahead of the private sector,” she said. “Government may not have the kind of salary competitiveness with the private market but hopefully, we can be a more family-friendly environment.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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