By Steve Kelman

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How to attract young talent to your agency

steve kelman

Camilla Nawaz of GovLoop just posted a fascinating article about how the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the agency that gathers and analyzes map and other geographic data, goes about recruiting young people to the organization. Although the NGA's intelligence mission gives them a cachet that less-glamorous federal agencies might lack (albeit with far less brand name recognition than the Central Intelligence Agency or even the Department of Homeland Security), most of the advice in the article could be applied by any agency that wants to improve its recruitment of young people.

First, NGA has a targeted group of universities with whom they work closely to locate applicants. They do more than just appear once a year at some career fair. In fact (presumably in cooperation with the university's career services office), they microtarget, so if they are looking for editors they work with the English department, while if they are looking for STEM workers they cooperate with relevant student clubs.

"It's about relationship building …  and it's also about us getting to spend time with the individuals who possess the skillsets that we are looking for," the article quotes Susan Shumate, head of the NGA Talent Acquisition Division as saying. (As an aside, I think "Talent Acquisition Division is a much better moniker better than, say, Office of Personnel.)

I believe every agency should choose a small number of target universities, preferably those with strong programs in areas of the agency's mission.  So an environmental agency should look for strong environmental sciences programs, a national security agency for strong international affairs programs. My personal view is that historically black colleges are a prime recruiting ground for talent, because the culture at those schools is far more sympathetic to government service than in many other communities. I would also look for universities (Florida, Texas, California?) with a lot of students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, grateful to their new land.

The article also discusses NGA's use of online and social media. The agency recently held a town hall on Twitter to answer questions about an internship program. Doing things like this have not only the obvious value of being less-expensive means to reach many young people, but also the signaling value of showing kids that you don't fit the stereotype of stodgy agency dinosaur. 

NGA has also, in cooperation with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, participated in an online career fair for young people interested in careers in intelligence. NGA recruiters found this was not only cheaper for the agency and easier to access for students, but actually gave students more-personalized attention because questions could be answered individually and asynchronously, or even grouped into chat rooms with common themes. This is far more effective than the traditional luck of the physical career fair draw, where the ability to get questions answered depends on whether one can get to the front of a table.

I would urge those thinking about improving hiring to remember the great opportunities agencies have, which relatively few are making use of, to develop internship programs and to hire students who succeed in these internships, bypassing a lot of the normal bureaucracy associated with hiring. I blogged about this a few months ago.

The hiring process is one of the most-broken facets of government. Some of that is the fault of the system, of factors beyond the control of the managers for whom new hiring is being done. But much of it, frankly, is the fault of hiring managers themselves, many of whom are wildly insufficiently engaged in hiring. They instead willingly delegate too much of the process to the "personnelist" bureaucracy that will, left to their own devices, typically magnify every dysfunction of the system while not showing sufficient interest in the quality of the people attracted.

Any manager in the private sector worth their salary must be personally and deeply engaged in hiring decisions. Federal managers, in hiring we really need to get our own act together. A lot of the problems are self-caused.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 19, 2015 at 8:50 AM


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