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By Steve Kelman

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Looking for new ways to attract young people to government

There's a big need to shake up the traditional ways in which agencies recruits young people for careers in government. There's been some progress in the last year with the proliferation of agency Facebook pages, and there's hope for improving the content of USAJobs (more intuitive job descriptions, for example) and the massive paperwork often required for government job applications. (Full disclosure: my wife's current position in the Obama administration includes working on personnel policy issues.) As is often the case, we should be trying lots of experiments to see which ones are effective in helping government recruit good young people, and which ones not.
In this regard, I saw recently a story at titled "Student interns head back to college to tout Energy Department." Writer Alex Parker discusses an interesting effort by the always-out front Partnership for Public Service called the Federal Service Ambassador Program. This program recruits a number of college undergrads who have had summer internships in government agencies and has them undertake various activities back on campus to talk about their experiences and encourage classmates to apply to their agencies. In this effort specifically, six Energy Department interns majoring in math, engineering and international relations returned to campus to interest fellow-majors in hard-to-fill entry level jobs in these areas at Energy. The idea is that the "ambassadors" are both more proactive and more credible than traditional government recruiters, and that because they are already on campus, they are less expensive than sending recruiters from the outside.
I like the fact that the Partnership is relentlessly seeking out innovative ways to promote public service. (Hey, government readers: this isn't something that just should be left to non-profits such as the Partnership; agencies should be thinking up new ideas themselves as well.) That said, I'm not sure this approach will work. Often summer interns don't really get to experience what a job is like, and one wonders whether young full-time employees would be better recruiters, even if considerably more expensive. Also, the Partnership is paying these "ambassadors" approximately $2,000 for their work (including training them), and I wonder whether that will reduce their credibility with their classmates. Neither of these criticisms means that this experiment necessarily is a bad idea. We need lots of small-scale experiments such as these, with mini-evaluations to see which are most promising for expansion.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 08, 2010 at 12:08 PM

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Reader comments

Sat, Jan 16, 2010 Emile DC Metro

Since last September, I have had a succession of interns working for me (through a rotational career development program) and I have given each one of them significant, important, challenging work assignments. Involving them in the substantive work of the agency has been rewarding for them and for the organization. They have the fresh perspective and energy every organization needs. Instead of driving these bright young minds away by sticking them in a corner or giving them tedious, dull, unstimulating work assignments until they "pay dues" or attain some preordained rank or grade of responsibility, I choose to use the tremendous resource they are to promote the work of the agency. I spend a few minutes to get to know where their interests and strengths are, then capitalize on those areas to my own benefit as a manager. In my experience, the govt needs more inspired and inspiring leadership. It isn't about compensation - it's about the psychic benefit of knowing you are making a difference for the greater good and experiencing that you can actually affect something in a positive way as a servant of the public.

Wed, Jan 13, 2010 ed hennessy united states

Do like Mr. Kelman's emphasis on innovation - this topic certainly needs to have the creative juices flowing.On the flip-side, it would appear that the recruiting and promotional vehicles are not the core issues - it prevails - Government must find ways of tangibly competing with Industry and other segments to cause the young and impressionable to pursue Government work. The Government Machine has managed to break the traditional stigma - just count how many spotlights there are on NPR daily, which revolve around some aspect of Government life. It's in vogue, moving swiftly and tackling a rich, agenda of the most, challenging issues/problems that the world faces. Of course, the decision on the pay-for-performance program may cause the young, upstart some confusion about the Government's direction and long-term, compensation motives.

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