New recruits say government work is a good gig — and as rewarding as ever — but getting a foot in the door can be a drag.
What’s the deal around here?
That is the No. 1 question that young people want answered when searching for jobs, said Bruce Tulgan, a management expert and founder of RainmakerThinking. To develop a powerful recruiting message — which is more critical now than ever before — federal agencies should provide clear answers, Tulgan said.
In the next five years, half of all government employees will be eligible to retire. Millions of new hires are necessary to maintain the public-sector workforce. The government is trying to streamline the hiring process and become more appealing to young people, but much work still remains.
“Young people have become an endangered species in our federal workforce, as only 3 percent of the federal workforce is currently under 25,” wrote Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, in the May report “Back to School: Rethinking Federal Recruiting on College Campuses.”
The primary roadblock to luring young people into government careers is the lengthy hiring procedure, said Jon Desenberg, a senior consultant at the Performance Institute. “It’s not so much the interest, which I think is there. It’s really the process that has been the biggest problem — the hiring process itself and how slow it is,” he said.
Many young people find USAJobs, the government’s one-stop job Web site, frustrating. Recent college graduate Margaret Metz considered a government job, but in the end, she never applied for one. Some of the jobs posted on USAJobs interested her, but ads for the positions had only basic descriptions. She was reluctant to fill out the lengthy profile required to learn more about them.
“It doesn’t make sense to go through that whole process when you don’t even know that you want the job,” Metz said.
Steve Ressler, an information technology auditor at the Homeland Security Department and one of the founders of Young Government Leaders (YGL), said his hiring process was a nightmare. He applied for 30 jobs via USAJobs, which led to only four interviews.
Ressler had a DHS scholarship at the time and previously interned for the Social Security Administration.
“It was kind of annoying that I’d had an internship and the government helped me pay for my school and I knew I wanted to work for them, and it still wasn’t an easy process to get there,” he said.
Young people also complain that the government’s hiring process takes too much time. They often must wait three, six or 12 months for a government agency to hire them, which far exceeds the time it takes most private-sector employers to offer a job.
Adam Evans, an IT specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, landed an interview at the VA one year after first applying for a job. When he called to follow up on his pending application, he always got the same response — we’ll call you when we’re ready.
“You hear that ‘we’ll call you,’ and you never think it’s going to happen,” Evans said. At one point, he forgot he had applied for the position. The VA offered Evans a job about one month after his interview.
Ways to improve
Recent hires have many suggestions for improving government hiring procedures.
“I would make the [job] descriptions of USAJobs and all those places less bureaucratic” and easier to understand, Ressler said. He said he would like the process to be more like the private sector’s — send in a résumé and get an interview — instead of filling out lengthy questionnaires and then waiting months to hear from an agency.
Tambra Stevenson, a public affairs specialist at the Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency, said USAJobs should offer an online tutorial on looking up information. She said the government also needs to translate titles into their private-sector equivalents.
Stevenson added that the Office of Personnel Management should collaborate with YGL and the Partnership for Public Service to promote and market USAJobs to young professionals.
Desenberg said he thinks government agencies should reach out to colleges and their career services centers to develop personal relationships. “The people at the colleges are partners in the process and are pushing kids to consider specific agencies,” he said.
As part of this approach, agencies should continue to support opportunities such as internships and collegiate work positions, he said. Agencies can more easily hire those participants as full-time employees than recruit from scratch.
Hiring improvements should take into account a two-step process, said Caroline Chang, senior program manager at the Partnership for Public Service.
“Explaining and managing expectations is sort of the first step,” she said. “The next step is to examine ways that they can really cut the process down and make it shorter.”
The more things change
As the government updates its recruiting and hiring processes to match changing attitudes about the workplace, the call to public service is an enduring factor that provides a powerful boost to recruitment efforts.
Many young people in the new generation of government workers share the same call that beckoned their predecessors.
“I always thought that working for government was a way that I could really make a difference and help people,” said Nicola Graham, a program analyst intern at the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Center for Computing Services business relations office.
But the government must overcome persistent stereotypes that might deter some from seeking public-sector jobs.
Those include “big bureaucracy, gray people in gray cubes, doing paper-pushing work,” Chang said, describing the typical image of government work.
All the government workers interviewed for this story said such characterizations miss the mark. “Everyone’s got a stereotype that government employees don’t work, but that’s probably the opposite of what’s true,” said Paul Nguyen, chief information security officer and director of information assurance at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia. “I probably work a whole lot harder now than I ever did as a contractor.”
Some recent hires say bureaucracy is still prevalent in some decision-making or approval processes. However, in other respects, the government workplace is as dynamic and offers opportunities as interesting and timely as any private-sector job, several workers said.
“I’m working on something that’s a really hot topic,” said Lily Clark , a presidential management fellow at the Education Department. The project she works on aims to consolidate states’ reporting requirements and asks states to complete more than 200 federal government education surveys, she said.
The project is complex and has significant implications for states. “I’m really challenged,” she said.
Marisol Cruz, an IT specialist at the Government Accountability Office, helps investigate the issues that interest members of Congress. “Through our work, you can track what you’ve done and what changes have been made in the government,” she said.
In addition to serving the public, new employees also enjoy some of the well-known benefits of government work, such as continuing education opportunities, flexible work schedules and a good benefits package.
Another advantage for employees is the ability to transfer agencies without compromising their salary or benefits. “The beauty of the federal government is that if you don’t have a great fit at one agency, you can transfer or apply to another department and find great improvement,” Stevenson said.
“At DHS, it is a more lively environment, much more fast-paced than when I was at” SSA, Ressler said.
Cruz said she enjoys the versatility of her training program, which runs for two years with four rotations in GAO’s different IT sections. “And with GAO, you’re never doing the same thing all the time,” she said.
For many newcomers, such as Yvette Alonso, coordinator of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Information Center, government jobs offer the opportunity to demonstrate the skills and initiative that veterans look for when they prepare to pass the torch to a new generation of colleagues.
“I think the fact that I am young and they see that I’m able to lead the organization in major projects, that’s a huge impact,” Alonso said.
Azaroff wrote this feature as a summer intern at Federal Computer Week. She is now in her last semester as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland at College Park.
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