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Blog Recap: Yesterday’s Hearing On Inspiring Students To Federal Service

Yesterday I had the chance to sit in on a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. It was titled “Inspiring Students to Federal Service.” I took some notes and thought I’d share them in the form of brief summaries of each of the nine witnesses’ oral testimony.

The hearing was presided over by the chairman, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka, and was divided into two sessions. The first featured witnesses from government agencies and the second from the non-profit and advocacy world. The purpose of the hearing was to delve into how the federal government can work with colleges and universities to prepare students for (and inspire them to) careers in public service. Sen. Akaka began by thanking us for being there, and gave a special shout-out to all the interns who were present. He said the federal government is the largest employer in the country, and that it’s five years away from a huge retirement wave. The challenge is not just persuading young people to consider working for government but persuading young people in mission-critical and hard-to-fill professions like engineering. He noted as well that young people are dissuaded and frustrated by an overly complex federal hiring process.

For more details or to read the written testimony, you can visit http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Hearing&Hearing_ID=a912d823-cef8-4314-9d43-2418998eea42

Session I

The Honorable Christine M. Griffin, Deputy Director of OPM: OPM has already eliminated essay-style KSAs from federal applications. Now, young people can apply for government jobs with just a resume and cover letter. We recently launched a website called USAJobsRecruit to provide more information and resources to recruiters and job seekers. So we’re already making it easier to get in. But that’s just the first step. “Once we get them we need to keep them.” Our graduate student pathways framework makes federal internship programs better. It requires training and development for new hires. OPM recognizes the importance of mentoring, regular performance reviews, etc. to young people just starting out. “We’re a leader in this area, Mr. Chairman.”

Mr. Michael C. Kane, DOE CHCO: We launched a Student Ambassadors program. It began as six positions for young people who had previously worked for us that sent them back to their schools and communities to act as peer-to-peer recruiters. They’re able to talk about our agency’s values and what it’s really like to work for us. In seven months, each one can create 71 faculty contacts. This type of in-person outreach “complements the electronic world we live in.”

Ms. Carolyn Taylor, GAO CHCO: We have a robust campus recruitment program and have hired ~500 entry-level analysts and student interns through a 10-year-old program. We have an educator’s advisory panel where we enlist deans, advisers, etc., to help with outreach. We also work with professional organizations and are continuously trying to increase our brand recognition. But we also have to support young people once they’ve arrived at GAO. That’s why we have a 2-year professional development program where every new hire gets an advisor. We give regular feedback, formal performance appraisals, etc. They can be matched up with a mentor if they want to. Our senior execs are very much involved. We also offer flexible hours, telework, etc. As a result, 90 percent of those hired in 2008 are still with us and we’re the second best place to work in federal government (according to the Partnership for Public Service rankings) two years running.

Session II

Mr. Tim McManus, VP for Outreach and Education at the Partnership for Public Service: We’ve launched a joint endeavor with OPM called “Call to Serve” that partners with 750+ colleges and universities across the country to inform and inspire students about the need to fill mission-critical jobs in government. Budget constraints and a general increase in government-bashing could erode the competitive advantage as an employer. We need agency leadership to make recruiting and retaining talent a priority. SES should be evaluated on how well they do this at performance review time. And Congress needs to hold agencies accountable.

5 Recommendations:

1 – Maintain an on-campus presence, even when your agency is not hiring.

2 – Recruit peers to act as ambassadors.

3 – Take advantage of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act.

4 – Target scholarships and loan forgiveness to hard-to-fill positions

5 – Use internships as a pipeline to federal government careers. This means collecting metrics on the internship experience and viewing internships as on-the-job competency examinations.

Ms. Lauren McFarland, Executive Director of NASPAA: We helped create the PMF program in part because the competitive hiring system doesn’t work for recent graduates. It’s hard to get hired because students have little work experience, even though they’ve earned advanced degrees. Therefore, the Student Pathways executive order must be implemented.

How can we convince young people to consider public service?

1 – Pathways to getting hired need to be clear and direct.

2 – The PMF program is famous for being rigorous and daunting. This is a good thing. It attracts the best.

3 – We should work to funnel students into needed areas.

Ms. Anne Mahle, VP for Recruitment at Teach for America: We exist not just to train teachers but to train leaders in every field. We’ve learned many lessons that government should be able to learn from. Students and professionals want to positively impact their communities. You have to present a compelling value proposition: What is the problem that needs to be solved and how can they personally help solve it? At TFA, selectivity and diversity are good things. We want individuals who reflect the populations they’re going to serve. So we seek out an over-representation of blacks and Latinos. We also have found that having a flexible application process with five different deadlines helps. We get back to people quickly, within a week, to let them know if they’ve been selected to move on to the next level. And we only ask for information that helps us determine whether a person will be successful. For example, we eliminated long essay questions because they weren’t giving us data we could use.

Mr. Witold Skwierczynski, President of the American Federation of Government Employees: We applaud president Obama’s initiatives so far. The old intern program was allowing hiring managers to bypass the competitive process and that was unacceptable. We urge OPM to ensure that agencies are using merit-based hiring practices and respecting veteran’s preference. Surveys we conduct show respondents have witnessed favoritism. Oversight is not enough; managers shouldn’t have open-ended hiring authority because that leads to abuses. Decent pay and benefits are also necessary to attract and keep talent. The current pay freezes, etc., are not helping. The GOP proposal to force employees to contribute more toward their retirement funds would severely inhibit recruitment of the types of individuals we need most.

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Melissa O'Neal

I agree with Ms. McFarland. We need a competitive application process that supports fair and open competition from all segments of society. If new graduates can’t be competitive for entry level positions, this is the sign of a problem with the system.

I believe the first priority must be to steer potential applicants to areas where they can actually compete as true entry level applicants without much experience. This means catching them long before they pick a major, not a few months before graduation. All the public service motivation in the world is meaningless if you can’t make the cut on a competitive certificate.

There is nothing more frustrating than to apply for every entry level position you can find only to learn that you aren’t getting referred (much less interviewed) for most of them. If the potential applicants aren’t competitive for whatever reason, attempting to recruit them by steering them to USAJOBS will only increase the perception that the process is not fair or transparent.

Dave Uejio

Thanks for the summary, Stephanie! I was at the hearing too and came away somewhat despondent. It seems to me we don’t necessarily have consensus on the problem, let alone the solutions.

Alicia Mazzara

Thanks for this write-up! Unfortunately I don’t think the problem is lack of interest so much as an inability to penetrate the hiring process.