D.C. locale can aid agencies' search for young talent

Federal agencies and departments need to do a better job of using the city of Washington as a recruiting tool to attract young professionals looking for employment, writes Steve Kelman.

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

One fact that has gotten nearly no attention in discussions about attracting talented young people to work in government is that for many new entrants to the job market, an important element in job choice is where one will live. In my experience, both as a father and teacher, many young people first choose where they want to live and then look for jobs in those locations. While in China recently, I saw that some Chinese web firms, such as Baidu (their home-grown Google), are recruiting undergraduates at American universities by arguing that China is a cool place to be.

That is good news for Washington, D.C. The city has an important advantage for attracting young professionals: the presence of lots of other young professionals already living there, including hordes of young Capitol Hill staffers, junior lawyers and employees of political and management consulting firms. In contrast, Boston has a huge number of students, but they are not working professionals. And the two groups — perhaps unbeknownst to an older generation that tends to think of the two as the same — don’t necessarily like to socialize with each other.

That means — in case any fellow geriatrics have not noticed — there are a lot of neighborhoods and places in Washington for young professionals to socialize, with restaurants, bars, dancing places and outdoor life. Besides Georgetown, there is Dupont Circle, Chinatown, Capitol Hill, Adams Morgan and probably other areas about which I am ignorant. The city has benefited from its economic boom in the past 10-plus years, which has made the city both safer and more physically appealing to young professionals. Recently, Aaron Schock, voted by Huffington Post readers as “hottest freshman” in Congress, was quoted saying “D.C. is becoming kind of a cool place to be.”

However, nobody in Washington seems to have caught on to this. I am not familiar with any government agency that is using the Washington locale as a way to attract young employees. I haven’t even seen this theme in any of the efforts of the normally hip-to-the-young Partnership for Public Service. Nor does GovLoop, a social networking site for government folks — mostly young government folks — have a feature that allows members to rate or discuss the city's after-work attractions. Steve Ressler, GovLoop founder, take note: As a member of your advisory board, I am going to raise this issue with you!

Agencies should band together to do something about this because branding Washington as an attractive place for young professionals is something that redounds to the benefit of all government agencies and even contractors. Maybe the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, together with the Office of Personnel Management, should recruit new feds to put together and manage a Web site and Facebook page on life in Washington for young people.

Or if that is too edgy for staid agency folks, perhaps the job could be left to the Partnership for Public Service and/or GovLoop, with appropriate disclaimers that the sites do not contain official government content. After such sites are up and running, individual agencies should use them as part of their recruiting efforts. Or at a minimum, agency recruiters should be able to discuss Washington’s attractiveness as a place to live.

In our current weak economy, the government has an advantage over other employers in that it actually has jobs available. But it is obvious that the government will face enormous competitive challenges when private employers recover and the job market returns to normal. The government needs to capitalize on any advantage it can in competing for talent. The attractiveness of Washington as a place to live is one such important advantage, and the government needs to start acting accordingly.

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