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

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

This topic contains 24 replies, has 13 voices, and was last updated by  Kevin Lanahan 6 years, 11 months ago.

  • Author
  • #180174

    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?

    Photo Credit: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7459/8809614813_8918ab8606.jpg

  • #180222

    Kevin Lanahan

    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.

  • #180220

    Lori Winterfeldt

    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.

  • #180218

    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.

  • #180216

    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.

  • #180214

    Mark Hummel

    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.

  • #180212

    Mark Hammer

    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.

  • #180210

    Hey Mark – That was inspiring. Where do I sign up? 🙂

  • #180208

    Henry Brown

    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

  • #180206

    Kanika Tolver

    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.

  • #180204

    Marie Koko

    Ironically, I don’t have to say a thing. They come to me! They WANT to serve! Most of my students see a future in diplomacy or the IC or doing government research, but few here in “flyover country” feel this sense of ennui expressed by the kids at Harvard.

    Indeed, so many of the Midwestern Millennial generation with whom I work daily have a palpable HUNGER for the idealism that Obama laid out when he ran the first time; for the notion of a government that can and does do good work for its people. These kids still believe, and they aren’t solely motivated by the almighty dollar. They want to help, to make a difference, to change the world. They are the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert generation and THEY see the thuggery of what’s happening in DC with clear eyes. Then again, they are college educated in the liberal arts, and how to think and how to question is part of the curriculum! Despite the Sequester and the shut down – they are coming to see me in droves so the sooner the House stops playing Playground Bully with the nation’s checkbook and puts people back to work the happier we’ll all be.

  • #180202

    Hey Marie – I see you’re in Madison. Sounds like agencies need to spend more time recruiting in your neck of the woods. By the way, if you’re looking to help them land those jobs, check out our resources here:


    – Guide to Getting a Government Job for High Achievers

    – Making Global Impact: Getting an International Job in Government

    – Guide to Managing the PMF Application Process

  • #180200

    Marie Koko

    Already do! http://careers.ls.wisc.edu/government-job-search–students.htm The Fed pages are still WILDLY under construction, but getting there. The State/city/county and working for elected officials may get up by December if I get the time! 😉

  • #180198

    Julie Chase

    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 disability…you 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 veterans….you 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”…like

    * “oh get into the Pathways Program….(oh sorry, your installation is not participating…no 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.

  • #180196

    Mark Hammer

    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.

  • #180194

    Thanks for including us, Marie!

  • #180192

    Julie Chase

    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/order….it’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.

  • #180190

    I talked to Washington Post TV about this very topic today. They hadn’t seen this discussion forum, so it was just serendipity that I got the chance to do the interview:


  • #180188

    Please do it! We need you! The problems facing our world today can’t be solved with the same rigid, linear thinking that created them. There are a few of us in the senior ranks who, rather than thinking “Oh God, millennials,” are thinking, “Thank God, millennials.” Most of us in the senior ranks came in with fire and enthusiasm and the belief that we could make the world a better place. We still believe that. We are just tired. We didn’t take care of ourselves in the early years, we didn’t develop our leadership mindset early enough, and we thought that the organization should give us everything it needed us to have. We now know that we got some things right. Others not so much. You have the chance to do what we couldn’t. And we are here to support you.

  • #180186

    Great answer, Martha. Need some fresh energy…and leaders who are willing to provide top cover for new-to-government innovators.

  • #180184

    Henry Brown

    Believe that this article in FCW might be related

    Worry: Shutdown discourages talented students

    Teachers of the next generation of federal employees are watching the partial government shutdown with trepidation about the future. While educators see a sense of mission among millennials who are preparing for government careers, obstacles to such careers are mounting.

    “We want the best and the brightest to want to work for the federal government, and we are swimming against the current right now,” said Daniel Gordon, associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University Law School.

    The partial shutdown of the federal government is only the latest in a series of setbacks for federal workers that are tarnishing the government brand, including pay freezes, furloughs under sequestration and a ponderous, unwieldy human resources system that can be discouraging to would-be employees.

  • #180182
  • #180180

    Julie Chase

    Martha…that would be grat…IF…uncle sam were hiring …..AND….IF….tbe young people are not vets….they will not make tbe cert and will not be referred. TThat iss the law…..I’m not making it up. So young people are discouraged right off the bat.

  • #180178

    David B. Grinberg

    Awesome interview with Post TV, Andy, along with the news item in the paper (hard copy and digital). Way to go!

  • #180176

    Dale M. Posthumus

    I sometimes wonder if this issue isn’t something like, every one hates Congress but we all love our own representative. Perhaps the college students who want to work in Govt see the area of their interest as better than the rest of Govt. I sure did. Still do. I work a lot with NOAA and I see how these folks believe in what they do and what their agencies do, even with the frsutrations.

    I don’t know that much has really changed since I was a grad student. I had an interest in international trade and development. That narrowed my search to a few agencies. I found job opportunities that fit my interest only in some of those agencies. I felt the agencies I was applying to were better than other agencies.

    BTW, I also did not apply through the HR system for some advertised job. I wrote letters (yea, that long ago!) to everybody from the Secretary down to the head of agencies where I wanted to work. This in a day where you had to go to the library (usually more than one) to find out who was whom in Govt. When I interviewed for the job I eventually landed, my future boss told me he had five of my letters on his desk, handed down all the way from the Secretary. I do not know if this approach would work today.

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.