The federal government could do a better job of keeping young feds on the job if it created more opportunities for them to do interesting work, writes blogger Steve Kelman.
I was having a conversation recently at lunch with a participant in our executive education program for GS-15's finishing up at the Kennedy School shortly. He noted that he was, to his knowledge, the only member of his Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) 1999 cohort still working in the government. He believed that PMFs were disillusioned with government service in large part because there are few GS-9 jobs that are interesting enough to engage smart young people. You generally need to get to higher-level jobs to have interesting work assignments, he felt, and by that time PMFs have jumped ship. After his observation, I sat down at lunch a few days later to discuss this issue with some of the other participants in the class.
Some interesting observations came out of the conversation. One was that you are more likely to find interesting and challenging GS-9 jobs in the field -- including civilian jobs in military settings -- than in a lot of agency headquarters in Washington. One Navy participant told me he had GS-9 civilians doing logistics-related jobs with a lot of responsibility and job variety. (I told people I remembered once picking up a hitchhiker in northern California many years ago who was an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of major complaints against big employers -- and he was a GS-7.)
A number of people in the conversation thought you could give new GS-9 hires interesting jobs as junior members of a team working on a significant issue. But managers needed to make a point to find these opportunities. Indeed, all the people around the table at lunch thought that agencies that cared about retaining bright young hires needed to think much more systematically about what kinds of job assignments to give the new hires.
We all agreed -- including me -- that "the kids" often have exaggerated expectations of the kinds of responsibilities they can reasonably expect in their first jobs. But most PMFs -- and indeed, a large proportion of smart young people seeking government careers -- have some policy-related interests, and there must be ways, again as part of teams, to give them exposure to their policy area of interest even if they can't be "making policy" themselves.
The conversation also turned to the question of smart GS-9's who soon find themselves doing GS-13 type work -- at the salary of a 9 and often working harder than some retired-in-place 13 or 14. This of course raises tough managerial challenges for the supervisor. The participant who originally raised this issue about the fate of PMFs suggested that a good supervisor is one who can pair the bright GS-9 or 11 with a bright and hardworking GS-13 or GS-14 mentor, giving the older person someone who will help him or her look good, while giving the younger person some responsibility and mentorship, which can make up for the lower salary and grade level. Meanwhile, the retired-in-place GS-14 is left off in a corner by himself or herself, insulated from the young achiever but, of course, still drawing a salary -- an unhappy fact about federal workplaces that is a losing proposition for everyone but the retired-in-place employee.