President John F. Kennedy inspired a young generation to public service in the early 1960s, talking about the “honor” that federal employees should feel by serving their country and using their talents to “contribute to the direction and success of this free society.” President Obama sought to do the same in 2008 with a promise to reinvigorate faith in our government and to make federal service “cool” again.

While Kennedy’s message resonated five decades ago, the times are quite different today. Kennedy helped change the face of the government, but the millennial generation—those in their 20s and early 30s—currently represent only 8 percent of all federal employees while making up 36 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

A 2013 poll by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that just 5.7 percent of college students said they plan to work in government after graduation, compared to 35 percent who prefer the private sector and 18.4 percent who are interested in teaching and in the nonprofit sector. The survey did not ask the students whether their interest was in local, state or the federal government.

All this suggests that the federal government has some work to do if it wants to attract larger numbers of top college graduates. Yet, it also presents an opportunity for federal leaders to find ways to accentuate the positive aspects of public service and lay a solid foundation for the future.

Although hiring has slowed because of budget reductions, agencies need to maintain their job market profile and find ways to continually reach young people and inspire them to consider federal service. Here are some ideas to help get started:

Don’t talk about jobs, talk about mission. Many agencies are hung up on whether they will have jobs available. Instead, as a federal manager, you need to think big picture. You may not be hiring now but at some point you will be, especially with the baby boomer generation slowly but surely heading for the exits. Maintain a presence in the public job market as best you can, convey the potential opportunities and highlight the challenging and interesting work of federal employees and how it helps the nation. Making a difference is a still a key factor in what millennials are looking for in their work life.

Don’t promote government as a career, but as an opportunity. Young people are not necessarily looking at a job as a lifelong career. Focus on how your agency will help them grow and develop, even if they don't stay with you for the long haul. Make them aware of the opportunities in engineering, business, information technology, the sciences or other skill areas that may exist at your agency, and the types of responsibilities that they may be able to take on early in their tenure.

Meet the young generation where they are. From social networking applications to text messages, students and those in their mid-20s and early 30s live online, using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels. With resources limited to make many campus visits, provide the new generation with information online about your agency’s mission, current job openings and how to apply.

Give them a taste. Provide opportunities for young people to see and experience the work firsthand. That may be anything from “shadow” days to full-blown internship opportunities. Internships provide federal agencies with an excellent opportunity to assess the skills and aptitude of the participants and to select the most capable and productive people for permanent employment. Interns also have the chance to size up the agency, and understand if it is the right place to work.

If you have had success in bringing talented young people onboard or know of strategies that have worked, please share your insights and experiences in the comment section below. You can also email me at

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.

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