Attracting today's students to careers in public service remains a problem

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It's a familiar refrain: public service is not a popular career choice among today's student population.

“We found that 41% of American youth have never considered going into the military,” Joseph Heck, a member of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, said during a recent webinar hosted by the Brookings Institution.

The demographics are well known: just 6% of the federal workforce is 30 years of age or younger, while a sizeable amount are eligible for retirement, including 45% to 55% of IRS workers. At the same time, commission members worry that recent events such as the 35-day government shutdown over the winter of 2018-2019 have soured students on civil service careers.

The commission published a report in March that included proposals designed to inspire "significantly more people … to answer the call to serve," with five million people occupying some military, civilian or other public service role by 2031.

"We've seen quite a decline in popular opinion in public service for some time. The nadir was the [government] furloughs during last year's shutdown," Heck said.

"There’s a popular conception that the federal government is this large apparatus, with lots of waste and bloat,” senior Brookings fellow Fiona Hill said at the May 4 webinar. She cited a Pew Research Center poll that showed only 17% of respondents in 2019 trusted the federal government "always or most of the time."

However, fellow commissioner Avril Haines added that there were signs that the coronavirus pandemic may be engendering positive views of public servants.

She cited a recent poll from the Pew Research Center that showed 77% of respondents had a positive view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while 70% had a favorable view of the Department of Health and Human Services. Both agencies have been at the forefront in coordinating the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

Haines added that expanding public service would require serious revamping of current recruitment practices.

"It's critical to have a more flexible personnel system that's based on talent management, as opposed to the current structure we have," she said.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a former staff writer and associate editor at FCW.


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