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Only 2.3% of College Students Plan to Work for Federal Government? Why?

GovLoop Note: Terry's post inspired this week's "Federal Worker Question" - a joint initiative of GovLoop and The Washington Post. Responses may also be submitted on the Post.


Jolie Lee, with the FederalNewsRadio reported today that, "A survey of more than 35,000 college and university students found only 2.3 percent plan to work in the federal government after leaving school.

The Partnership for Public Service analyzed the results of the 2011 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey.

"The results are both alarming and replete with challenges for federal hiring managers and human resources professionals who are charged with attracting a new generation of skilled employees to our government," according to the Partnership report."

Why is this percentage so low, despite our continued high unemployment rates?  I'm sure that there are many motivations behind this intent, but my opinion is that there is a growing coalition of the disenfranchised that see the Federal government as the problem, not the solution. 

This is very disappointing, but what can we do to turn this around?

Tags: college, human resourcs, recruitment

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I think there are several issues at play discouraging college students from attempting the federal hiring process.

  1. Nonprofits and private industry can hire far faster than the public sector. This is a big deal when you only have 6 months before you need to start paying back student loans. 
  2. Until the new Pathways Program is ready, agencies are limited to hiring current students through STEP, SCEP and PMF. Unfortunately, I have always felt that these programs not well known outside of the beltway.
  3. The negative press about being a federal employee is growing. We have long been the punchline at cocktail parties about inefficiency, ineffectiveness and such. However, in the last 2 years, Congress has made being a federal employee incredibly hard.

I would also be interested in data related to starting salaries between private, public and nonprofit sectors. I am inclined to believe that private sector has higher starting salaries, while nonprofit and public are similar. Also the image groups nonprofit and teaching together and has a large "other" category which I believe could be an equally interesting conversation.

From what I understand, Katelyn, starting salaries in federal service (say GS-7/9) are actually relatively competitive with many fields in the private and non-profit sectors.  It's after the first 3-5 years of service where many folks start to get stuck without possibility of promotion or pay increase (also commonly referred to as "plateauing,") regardless of whether they're high performers.

While I'd rather see 5% than 2.3%, the numbers are not THAT discouraging. 

I think it is important to differentiate between undergrads and those a bit older.  If I was just graduating and had a big debt-load, I'd probably be looking for something in the private sector with big-time compensation too.  Once you have a mortgage and kids, though, one of the things that appeals to you most is not necessarily travel, or promotions that may transfer you across the country, but rather the stability of the job, the extended benefits (for family), and the security of working for an employer who is not leaving town or being outsourced to Mexico or India.  In other words, those aspects of federal employment that are usually strong attractants are not necessarily strong attractants to the age group surveyed. You will note that 17.7% indicated working in the public interest in some capacity.  That may be what they want and can afford now, and it may well translate into a desire for something more substantial and secure.  The romance of NGOs can wear off, sometimes.

Second, while there is certainly federal representation just about everywhere, and the schools surveyed seem to be situated everywhere, do not ignore the proportion of students situated where the jobs aren't.  If the survey was confined to universities within a 50 mile radius of DC, I would imagine the proportion pondering federal work would be much higher.  For a chunk of those surveyed, federal work may simply not be on the local radar.

Finally, there is something to be said for the pervasive perception that the public sector is either in the process of being scaled back, or under threat of being scaled back.  I know that in the Canadian context, federal job postings have reduced in number over the last few years, and applications have also dropped substantially.  The lastest federal employee survey results indicate that promotion rates have reduced in the last 3 years too.  I am not as familiar with the U.S. numbers, but I can't imagine them much different.  So, grads may well be turning the car around because, from a distance, it looks like the store is probably closed.

I'm not so concerned about minimal interest, as long as those that are interested are the sorts of people who are a great fit for the job.  Remember, it doesn't take that many new recruits to backfill the outflow, and not all federal jobs require a university degree.

Wonder what the numbers looked like 2 or 3 years ago and 5 or 6 years ago...

ASSUME that the same 2.3 percent of all graduates... and ASSUMMING that 2009 numbers are about the same as 2011 where 1,600,000 people received bachelor degrees would indicate ~37,000 new hires at the entry level in these relative austere budgetary times. 

Elsewhere on GovLoop there is a discussion about the CBO discussion about Federal Pay levels which indicated that professionals tended to get lower pay in the Federal Sector vs the Private Sector....

Elsewhere on GovLoop there is also a discussion on the effect of benefits in the federal sector on the hiring process...(Most new hires are not terribly interested in retirement benefits)

Yes, I am outside the beltway BUT, Haven't seen a significant presence at Campus Job Fairs in the last 2 or 3 years and if the federal sector wants to hire more college graduates I would offer that perhaps the solution is NOT to wait on them to come to "us" looking for a job....

As a recent-ish graduate (A little under a year ago), I would say that college students perceive public sector work as boring and that there's no autonomy for government workers. Obviously, as you all know, the public sector is very big, there are many different types of work, and there is likely something to interest most people. However, it's not as in-plain-sight and talked about. There's also an infatuation with business for many Americans.

"college students perceive public sector work as boring and that there's no autonomy for government workers"

"However, it's not as in-plain-sight and talked about"


If one takes a step back, and examines development of vocational interests across adolescence and early adulthood more generally, you do see that when people don't know much about a job or career path, they tend to perceive it in terms of vague social-schemas they may hold or have conveyed to them.  Research into children's emerging awareness of jobs and work indicates that their knowledge about work is quite limited, such that their early notions of career paths they might pursue is often limited to those few jobs they regularly encounter in daily life or on TV: teacher, nurse, cowboy, firefighter, police officer, doctor, ballerina, rockstar, etc.  Few express a serious urge to be a podiatrist or quantity estimator or policy analyst.  It's also why a significant percentage of undergrads will switch majors after 2nd year: There are a whole lot of -ologies that they never knew existed or that turned out to be very different than they originally thought.

Granted, there IS a lot about many public sector jobs that is boring and subject to too many controls, but I don't know how many jobs are NOT like that.  If you think Eli Manning only went to the practices he felt like attending, and didn't have to spend hour after hour memorizing the playbook, think again.

So, I think we could accomplish two things here by further articulating the many-splendoured forms of federal employment, and those behind-the-scenes jobs that people tend not to know about.  On the one hand, it would help provide new graduates with a better sense of match between their skills and career options, and give them a reason to seek federal work.  On the other hand, it would give taxpayers a more fullsome notion of just what their tax dollars do when they're not looking, and maybe attenuate some of their complaining (and I said "some", because there is still plenty to complain about, and always will be).

Good call, Corey.

The notion of "service" seems to have been lost, too. And, I hazard a guess that most college students have only a minimal grasp of how government actually works. I know I didn't before I was offered and took a government job. In fact, few citizens, in generally, have much of an idea of what goes on in government, since the media provides such a skewed vision.

(on location in Winnipeg, doing some customer SERVICE work for the MB. gov.)

Bob, it took me about 3 years to stop feeling like an anthropology doctoral student parachuted into the Amazon to observe a tribe that had no previous contact with the outside world.  That wasn't so much a media misdepiction, as much as the complete absence of any sort of information.  I had absolutely no idea that any branch of government even did what my department does.

Students aren't the only ones unaware of how the bureaucratic side of government works.  Take a gander at transcripts from various Parliamentary or Congressional committee hearings, when bureaucrats appear before them.  You can often find yourself aghast at how little knowledge those elected officials have about the inner workings of that which they pass judgment on.  They're not idiots, but they certainly are underinformed.

(if you run into Paul Thomas while in "the Peg", say hi from me)

Thanks a lot Mark, I'm glad I hit the nail on the head! I would also venture to say that we hear more about what is dysfunctional in government rather than what works. Media outlets tend to focus on the negative, and both parties win elections by saying the other party broke everything. It's unfortunate, really, that government workers get caught in the crosshairs of politics, though I suppose inherent. If those students came out of college truly informed about the role of government and government agencies, rather than what they've seen on TV, that chart would look a little different. And as you've said, they want to be certain things because they're portrayed positively in media, which government workers are all too often portrayed in an inaccurate and negative light.

Here's an example of a document that my government has produced several times:

It doesn't include ALL jobs, but provides a nice cross-section, and is often surprising with respect to the sorts of jobs it includes, though I think that's largely the point.  This is the sort of thing we should all be doing more of.

There are a LOT of things that the federal public service does that people are simply unaware of.  F'rinstance, let's say you work for a manufacturer and your job involves spraying or applying, or otherwise using, some industrial compound.  There will be an MSDS ( ) for it.  My wife's job is to review MSDS sheets, and verify that they contain sufficient, accurate, and up-to-date information about all known health hazards and risks.  They scour the relevant medical literature every month to update what is known, so as to assure that people working with industrial chemicals can observe all necessary steps and precautions to work safely.  That not only keeps workers safe, but assures that manufacturers are not liable for information they did not provide.

A student graduating with a degree in chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, environmental studies, or a pre-med program, may wonder what they can do with that degree, and have no idea that the public service is tasked with assuring simple workplace safety within the context of jobs like this.

There is a universe of interesting jobs and special-interest issues that new grads can attach themselves to...if only they knew.

I really like your journal Mark.  It would be nice to publish something like this, maybe in video format, during our Public Service Recognition Week that we have each year here in the states.  My agency publishes a "Day in the Life" publication to let taxpayers know what we do, but our best efforts are through movies, such as The Guardian or TV show such as Border Wars.  We definitely need to tell our story in a more compelling format for those who we ultimately work for - our citizens.  Then, maybe we will see more interest in careers with the Federal government.  We can only hope.

That "Day in the Life" document is interesting, and certainly persuasive, though it strikes me that it is more oriented at encouraging public perception of the legitimacy and necessity of the agency and its activities.  One comes away from it with the perception that there is a place for this agency in my nation's budget and plans, though not necessarily a place for me in that agency.

With respect to the subject matter of this thread, the ideal would be materials that allow a potential recruit to imagine themselves working in such a place, or at least imagine there might be a spot for what they can bring to the table.  It doesn't necessarily have to make the jobs sexy, dynamic, or stellar.  All it really has to do is convince the grad that what they studied, spent large sums of money on, and find interesting, can actually translate into a valid and fairly compensated job serving the public interest.


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