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How to Attract a New Generation to Public Service

  • May 6th 2019

Max Stier is founding president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which encompasses a network connecting over 1,000 colleges and universities with 80 federal agencies, awards that recognize civil servants, and other programs. Stier has worked in all three branches of federal government. He spoke in the 2019 session Renewing the Call to Public Service.

Ryan Shelby is an engineer who helped build hurricane-resistant homes in Haiti for the US Agency for International Development. His childhood helped propel him to his profession. Shelby grew up in rural Letohatchee, Alabama where he says “many people are in dire straits” because of a lack of economic opportunity.

“I was able to make it to where I am today because other people helped [my family], whether it was providing clothing, food or being there to answer questions about the larger world,” says Shelby. “I think of government service as my way to give back to others since other people helped when we didn’t have the resources."

Now 35, Shelby began working for USAID when he was in his late 20s, making him an exception when it comes to federal service. There is no doubt young people today are idealistic and want to make a difference, but unlike Shelby, they do not see the federal government as the place where they can have an impact. That’s a problem.

Currently, just 6 percent of all permanent, full-time federal employees are under age 30, a decline from 9 percent during the decade. In comparison, about 21 percent of all private sector employees are in their twenties. And as young people are shunning government, the federal workforce is aging. Forty-five percent of the workforce is over age 50, and 32 percent were on the payroll at the start of fiscal 2018 and are eligible to retire in 2022.

Why does it matter? It matters because our nation needs an infusion of dedicated employees capable of functioning in a fast-changing, data and technology-driven environment. We need a new generation to be able to keep us safe, engage in cutting-edge scientific and medical research, respond to emergencies, maintain the rule of law, help the needy, and advance our national interests.

The current federal workforce includes outstanding employees providing these and other important functions. An example is my organization’s 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal honorees who have helped advance our country’s leadership in space exploration, strengthened airport and seaport security, made major medical breakthroughs on brain injuries and kidney cancer, and improved Coast Guard search and rescue operations.

But our government clearly has an image problem, along with recruiting and hiring problems that are diminishing its ability to bring talented young people on board.

An Axios Harris poll in March examined the reputation of America’s 99 most high-profile companies and the federal government. The government ranked dead last. And a Pew Research Center poll released in April revealed that only 17 percent of Americans believe they can trust the federal government to do what is right — a historic low and a troubling sign that citizens do not believe the government is meeting their needs.

These polls undoubtedly reflect the current acrimonious political climate in Washington, years of government bashing, and lingering social and economic problems facing the country. But there also are systemic reasons that have discouraged young people from public service.

The federal government, for example, has a lengthy and arcane hiring process that makes getting in the door very difficult. The government is also operating under a 70-year-old pay and job classification system that is disconnected from the broader labor market, along with decades-old personnel policies that do not fit the mobile and agile model expected by today’s younger generation. In addition, agencies do not actively recruit on college campuses, make poor use of student internships to assess potential talent, and often fail to take advantage of available hiring flexibilities.

At the same time, the higher education community has not been proactive in alerting students of federal opportunities or the significant impact they can have on people’s lives through government service. And universities have not done a good job establishing connections with federal agencies or helping students navigate the complicated federal hiring process.

Our leaders must find ways to attract young people like Shelby, who initially worked on a USAID project to increase the electric power in sub-Saharan Africa, and following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, helped rebuild nearly 5,000 disaster-resistant homes in Haiti using materials from local sources and by training more than 2,000 community members in novel construction techniques.

Attracting a new generation to service requires action from our political leaders and the university community. Congress must streamline the hiring process and create an occupation-specific, market-sensitive compensation system to better reflect the broader labor market for skilled professionals. Agencies need to make greater use of internship programs to assess and hire top talent and do a better job of campus recruiting, while universities must take a more active role in educating students about federal opportunities.

Our political leaders also must find ways to inspire young people — a 21st century call to service like John F. Kennedy did more than 60 years ago when he sought to make government “attractive enough to lure our most talented people…challenging enough to call forth our greatest efforts… and important enough to each individual to call forth reserves of energy and enthusiasm.”

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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