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Why Should Young People Still Pursue Public Service as a Career Path?

Let's say I'm a teenager in high school or a 20-something finishing up college.

I'm watching what's happening in Washington, DC, and this partisan bickering and government shutdown are as defining a moment for me as the Vietnam War was for the Baby Boomers or the Challenger explosion for Gen X or 9/11 for the Millennials.

10/4 UPDATE: I got the chance to talk with Washington Post TV about this topic today: FULL INTERVIEW HERE (1-2 minutes snippets along with it)

10/1 UPDATE: I just came across an article titled, "Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington If They Hate It?"  The author interviewed more than 80 Millennials to gain their perspective on government. Here's a couple lines that support this discussion:

The trouble is that Millennials believe traditional politics and government (especially Washington) are the worst avenues to great things. They are more likely to be social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems, even if only on a relatively small scale. 


How deep is the disengagement? I spent two days at Harvard, and couldn’t find a single student whose career goal is Washington or elective office. One wouldn’t expect to hear this at the Kennedy School of Government.“Government and politics,” said graduate student Sara Estill, “holds little or no attraction for us.”

What would you say to convince today's young people that public service is still a career path worth exploring?

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If public service is what you want to do, you should do it. There will be shutdowns and bureaucracy, but that is part of the game. Just like professional athletes lose half their season due to labor disputes, keeping them from the game they love, civil servants are often stymied by administrations or legislatures that care more about branding than results.

If it is just a job to you, don't bother. But if you want to make a difference, by all means join.

Not a bad analogy, Kevin. There will always be factors beyond your control. A friend of mine was laid off from IBM a couple years ago, but he went back to work for them when a new opportunity arose...only to be laid off again a few months later. As you said, you've got to do what you love and accept the trade-offs...which are present everywhere.

Life is crazy EVERYWHERE these days.  Why should it be any different here in government service.  I'm still glad I ended up working where I work.  I can always proudly point to my agency's mission.

True, Lori, per my comment to Kevin. The good thing about public service is that you feel you're making a difference despite the craziness.

Is it really worse now than ever?  "Crazy times" are defined by our experiences in life.  For most Americans, those experiences have ben relatively tame for decades, which makes today's situation feel quite unsettling.  Just the same, the situation IS unsettling.  Remember however, than in some countries -- even in this country (Think Civil War) -- such conflicts are fought with considerable cruelty and bloodshed. 

Public service is a calling.  Go for it.  You can help make the country work despite the caustic brinksmanship of some members of Congress.  Remember, for every self-righteous, hold-the-country-hostage ideologue, there are ten others trying to make the system work.  Focus on those who create community and effectiveness despite the crazy context.

There is a famous Chinese blessing/curse, "May you live in interesting times," which are invariably accompanied by danger AND opportunity.  Sure, be aware of -- and informed by -- the danger.  And.  Run with the opportunity.  Your country needs you now more than ever. 



Hey Mark - That was inspiring. Where do I sign up? :-)

I think it is important NOT to think about entry into the PS in terms of some monolithic and indivisible cluster of motives that apply to all such persons as you describe.

Some folks pursue it because it is the best compensated work for their skillset, or the most dependable employer, in their region.  Some pursue it because they need the benefits programs.  Some pursue it because there are few other options for the sort of work they are trained to do or want to do (e.g., can you be a park ranger any other way?).  Some pursue it because they have visions of "the public good", or have specific agendas (the environment, public health, education, etc.).

There will be people who could work for an insurance company, an accounting firm, a grocery chain, or a federal agency, and would be doing pretty much the same sort of work in any of those environments, albeit for different sorts of clients and employers.  There will be people who work much closer to the political machinery and may acquire a bitter taste, but there will be a great many others who work hundreds and thousands of miles away from, and several layers down from that machinery, and feel no relationship, good or bad, to it.

As much as I like, and frequently refer to, the research literature on "public service motivation", one of the bones I have to pick with researchers and thinkers in the area is that there is a big and diverse constellation of reasons why people become public servants, simply because it includes a huge spectrum of job types and related work-motivations, many of them no different at all from the private sector.

Excellent points.  You made through the mire of flag waving and flag wrapping and got down to brass tacks.  In this part of the civil service world and in this little village, if you can get a government job on a nearby military installation, you have struck "GOLD".  Benefits, steady work (yeah right now, that's not lookin' too good) and the pay is better than the private sector in the little burgs and villages where you live, unless you are at Quantico or Pendleton where everything is through the roof.

I know a young man who has been trying to get hired on since he became an intern at our installation while going to collage.  He graduated....and now 2 years later he has heard every excuse in the book from "we are in a hiring freeze"..."and you don't qualify (even though you have the education and have interned here and have a Schedule A didn't make the cert because you are not a veteran."  

See very important info below:

Ah....the little piece of the puzzle young people "don't know" about.  Civil Service was set up for can sugar coat it all you want...but there is a huge push to hire vets with "minimal" qualifications.  This is the stone cold truth. After awhile, they get tired of applying. And living in DC is not the hill they want to die on.  So they go to the private sector and become insurance agents, work for an accounting firm, or flipping burgers because they have a student loan to pay back, and Uncle Sam has canned the "pay your loan if you work for me program."  Please keep in mind, these little "get in the door" programs only work if the "agency" sets aside "funding" to implement them.  If they don't have the funding to set up a Pathways Program, it will NOT happen.

They are tired of the "pie crust promises"

* "oh get into the Pathways Program....(oh sorry, your installation is not funding),

*  "We welcome new blood, young innovative fresh ideas"...(oh sorry, we are in a hiring freeze)....

*  "Yes, if you are a person with disabilities, please apply and take note of the EO of July 2010, we want you:"...(oh, sorry again....the EO doesn't provide any funding to agencies to hire persons with disabilities and well....we don't have to, the EO is just a suggestion).

I see many young people totally turned off of government service as the tsunami of retirees are bolting through the door (before their high 3 becomes a high 5) and their billets remain empty because the agency can't hire. Cubicles in our engineering bldg. remain empty.....our STEM career fields go begging with our tenant command.

It is important to stay "positive", but outside the Land of Oz, things aren't all so rosey.  DoD is being shredded and it being shredded from the wrong end of the GS pay scale. 

Thanks for an informative (if a little sour) reply.

I don't know if the Civil Service was "set up for veterans", but most public services do include some sort of preferential hiring of vets, as part of an ethical obligation.  Whether they are always able to live up to that obligation is another thing.

In Canada, we find ourselves in a bit of a sticky predicament with respect to hiring vets at the moment.  Medically discharged members of the Canadian Forces DO have what are termed "priority entitlements" that require managers to give them first consideration when hiring, so long as they meet the essential qualifications of the job.  About 70% of them, historically, would get placed in the civilian side of the Department of National Defense.

Unfortunately, at the present time, the current government instituted a 7-10% workforce reduction in every federal agency.  While "priority entitlements" for discharged vets ought to have helped them to get civilian jobs, agencies are having a tough time finding alternate placements for their own laid-off staff (which they feel ethically bound to help out, and rightly so).  The priority entitlements of laid-off civilian staff are exactly equal to the entitlements of medically discharged vets.  The net result is that vets are having a very tough time finding civilian jobs, simply because the policies intended to help them out, and make wise use of capable people, were predicated on agencies beyond Defense being in a hiring mood, and never envisaged the current circumstances.

One of the quirks in all of this is that "medical discharge" now includes PTSD.  That is as it should be.  Unfortunately, it is an invisible disability, and not the sort of thing that folks readily bring up in conversation ("Hi, I'm Bob.  I wake up screaming in a cold sweat in the middle of the night because I've seen things no human should ever have to see.  So don't get too freaked out if I get weird all of a sudden.  Great to be working with you!").  Moreover, I'd imagine that even where hiring managers know, ethics obliges them to keep it confidential.  When a vet shows up missing an arm or a leg or walking with a cane, folks understand, and are happy to make room for someone who has clearly sacrificed for their country.  But when nothing is visibly wrong, or fully explained, it can sometimes create unnecessarily hard feelings on the part of those who can't justify to themselves why their manager's "retired" military buddy just sort of showed up one day.

How similar this is to your own context, I'm in no position to say.  All I can say is that sometimes our best-intentioned policies just aren't enough.

Mark, reality is reality.  Government work is not the "shiny happy place" as some would have you think. You can be as innovative as you want however, if it's not in a policy/directive/publication/'s not going to be done at the "organizational" level.  Especially in DoD.  Everything is "regulated" to a T.  Change comes from "on high".  The millenials have a "sour" taste in their mouth for the unsteady, unpredictable and sit back and wait (to see if someone calls you for a job) government work.  It is no longer about wrapping yourself in the flag and working for mom, apple pie and the American way. The regulations have strangled innovation.

This generation is much too educated and free thinking than the hippies in the 60's ever though of being.  They are not going to work in a telemarketing cubicle for 8 hours a day and read regulations. I have spoken to many interns and asked, "please come back after graduation" we would love to have you.  The answer I get is, "No way, your starting pay for entry level engineers is a GS5, I'm not working for that, I have student loans to pay back."  My heart sank.  These are great kids and they ran for the private sector as fast as they tossed their cap into the air.

This is the real world.  A BRAC could come along and wipe out the entire economy of our little burg and push people into poverty.  I have seen it happen.  The government isn't the golden goose it used to be.

Would offer that if someone wants to explore a career in public sector that they at least be aware of the fact that leadership  perhaps doesn't always have their hat on straight and the impact that it will have on their chosen field.

Probably isn't anything worse than a disillusioned employee

Public service is a lifestyle. Do you want to change the  world with or without the PAY? Changing the world requires passion. Some public service employees are only concerned with their PAY.


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