How to compete with the private sector for young workers

March 18

AFP PHOTO/ Karen BLEIERKAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Employees younger than 30 represent just 8.5 percent of all federal workers, compared with 23.2 percent of the total U.S. workforce. That's a sign that government agencies should being doing a better job of attracting top talent from colleges and universities to increase generational diversity and create a solid foundation for the future.

The 2013 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Student Survey, analyzed by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, found that 24.9 percent of the 37,874 students ranked government (federal, state and local) as one of their top three target industries. Yet, only 5.7 percent listed federal service as their ideal career, and just 2 percent of the students said they planned to work for the federal government after graduation.

While federal hiring has slowed down because of budget constraints, jobs are being filled. And by 2017, about 31 percent of the government’s permanent career employees will be eligible to retire, presenting both a dilemma and an opportunity for federal leaders.

To better compete with the private and nonprofit sectors for the brightest students, federal managers and recruiters need a clearer understanding of college students’ interests, perceptions of federal employment and their professional expectations and preferences. Here are some strategies to help agency leaders more effectively attract and hire top graduates:

Strengthen understanding of the federal job application process. Analysis of the NACE data revealed that just 35 percent of students who listed the federal government as their ideal employer had actively begun their job search using USAJOBS.gov, the government’s official jobs Web site. This suggests that many college students lack a basic understanding of how to find and apply for federal jobs, and means federal recruiters need to go beyond simply spurring interest among top college students. Instead, they must actively engage recruits and help them navigate the application process.

Highlight the job attributes and benefits that students most desire. Recruiters should stress to students the opportunity for personal growth and development within their organizations, since students in the survey ranked this as the most important job attribute. Additionally, job security and good insurance and benefits packages ranked high on students’ priority lists—areas where federal agencies often have an edge over the private sector.

Use student internships and volunteer opportunities, even if you are not currently hiring. Highly qualified, desirable students may be interested in federal jobs, but with low hiring levels, agencies are unable to convert that interest into permanent positions. In this environment, federal agencies can use student internships and volunteer opportunities to maintain interest, evaluate talent and build a pipeline of promising students who can possibly be considered now or in the future.

Foster a workplace culture that is attractive to the next generation of employees. College students value opportunities for growth when evaluating potential employers. Unfortunately, research by the Partnership shows that federal employees are less likely than their private-sector peers to feel they have a real opportunity to improve their job skills. The government also trails far behind the private sector in terms of employee satisfaction when it comes to providing recognition for good performance, another job attribute highly desired by today’s college students. Federal agencies will need to close these gaps in employee satisfaction to create workplace cultures that can compete with the private sector for top college graduates and retain them after they arrive.

Use the mission to attract STEM talentAlthough students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) value starting salary more than non-STEM majors, salary is not at the top of their list when considering an employer. Many federal agencies generate interest among STEM students by emphasizing the opportunity to work on unique, cutting-edge or high-profile projects that may not be available in the private sector.

These are just a few ideas to consider as you are looking to bridge the generation gap and increase the number of young people at your agency. Please share your thoughts or suggestions on this topic in the comment section below or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Read also:

Building a brand for your federal agency

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