Bringing Generation Y Into the Fold

By Stephen Barr
Monday, September 24, 2007

They are the up-and-coming generation. Smart. Capable. And uncertain about working for Uncle Sam after they graduate from college.

"I don't know anybody who is at school with me who wants to just sit behind a desk and push papers and stay in the same job for a long period of time," said Jake Reeder, a junior majoring in neuroscience at the College of William and Mary. "That is the perception that a lot of people have about working for the government -- sitting in a cubicle."

Vinu Ilakkuvan, a junior in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, was an intern in Washington this summer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She's interested in a public health career and "really fascinated" by the interaction between politics and policy.

Ilakkuvan said she has not explored career possibilities in the government but would be interested in a job where she could influence science policies. "I feel with my generation there is a need to be in a career where you are making a difference -- a more direct influence on other people," she said.

But "the slowness of the process" in Washington for making decisions and implementing solutions can be discouraging, she said. "We are frustrated with the system, and I think it is a factor that could keep many people in my generation from seeking jobs in the government sector."

Finding a way to win over college students may be critical to the government's long-term ability to operate programs and deliver services to the public. About 60 percent of the government's 1.8 million civil service employees will be eligible to retire over the next nine years, and the Office of Personnel Management expects 40 percent to retire.

The retirement wave will come as growth in the nation's labor pool slows, according to experts. The government will face increased competition for engineers, scientists, doctors, linguists and other skilled professionals.

Although agencies have stepped up recruitment efforts, the government's image and cumbersome hiring procedures discourage many job applicants, especially young people.

"I don't think there is any question that the government is in trouble in attracting people," said Tamara J. Erickson, an expert on workforce demographics and president of the Concours Institute, which provides research and educational services to corporate executives.

Generation Y is an upbeat group that is not afraid to take risks, she said. "They are impatient and unwilling to take on jobs that they view as marking time. They are a generation that lives in the here and now. They are very oriented to immediacy," Erickson said.

As a result, they prefer jobs "where they feel something is getting accomplished" and "don't like jobs where they can't see the end in sight," she said.

Young people also are critical of inefficient organizations, which does not bode well for the government, given popular perceptions, she said. "They don't understand why it takes two hours to get back to them with an answer. They don't understand why we schedule meetings," Erickson said.

Growing up, speedy communications and technology have been constants in their world, and young Americans are used to interacting with their friends instantly. "They just bing, bang, boom with their text messages. They have information shared and the topic discussed," she noted.

Then there is the perception that the government is not an interesting place to work. In a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization and the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government last year, the majority of Gen Y respondents said the private sector does a better job of providing innovative and creative workplaces, does a better job of hiring and offers higher salaries.

To recruit young Americans, federal agencies will need to stress their strengths and what makes them unique, Erickson said. "Each agency needs to come up with a strategy for how it can position itself and market itself to this group."

A number of agencies have stepped up their recruiting efforts, and Linda M. Springer, the OPM director, is championing a "career patterns" initiative that encourages agencies to think about how jobs can be made more attractive and draw a broader mix of applicants.

Sameem Siddiqui, a senior at the University of Maryland majoring in mechanical engineering, agreed that federal agencies "will have to market in a very specific way to get our attention." He suggested that agencies play up the perks of technology -- laptops and BlackBerrys -- and a willingness to be geographically flexible about where people work.

He said he is interested in a federal job, especially at a place like the Environmental Protection Agency, where he could do policy research.

Siddiqui and Alan Coleman, a senior majoring in civil engineering at the University of Maryland, cited health insurance, vacation time, and pensions and other job benefits as reasons to look at federal employment.

"The sheer size and variation of projects allow a young engineer/employee to thoroughly understand the field and find a niche," Coleman wrote in an e-mail.

Still, Coleman said he remains uncertain: "I know that the federal government is a stable and smart choice, but I am not sure whether it would be the best fit for me."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company