Doing Good

Is JFK's call to service enough for this generation?

Last month, during the annual celebration of Public Service Recognition Week, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which is dedicated to promoting the value of working for the federal government, released a survey of college students' attitudes toward Uncle Sam as an employer.

The study found that 42 percent of 3,000 students surveyed at six universities were "extremely" or "very" interested in federal service, almost as many as those who said they had a strong interest in the corporate sector (49 percent) and more than those who expressed keen interest in nonprofit work (40 percent).

Still, agencies aren't doing a good enough job of letting students know about career opportunities in government, said Partnership's president, Max Stier. He urged them to highlight the practical value of federal work, including the relatively generous benefits.

"The JFK message of 'ask not' is not good enough for this generation," Stier said. "What you really need is something that offers up the opportunity for doing good, but also doing well."

I hope this turns out not to be true, and my sense is it's not. The young people in the office where I work put many of the baby boomers and Generation Xers to shame with their commitment to volunteer service. It's an expected part of their lives and careers. The defining moments for students coming out of college today are events such as Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. It's hard to believe they can't be bothered to take jobs serving their fellow citizens unless they are offered some extra financial incentive.

Many of today's college graduates come from families that have lived out the American dream. Their parents are more successful than their grandparents, who were better off than the generation that came before them. These young people are smart, talented and energetic, but many of them have come to believe that it will be difficult to exceed what their parents have accomplished financially. They are reacting by defining success as how much good they do rather than how well off they are.

To be fair, Stier wasn't saying pay and benefits are the only attractive elements of federal service. Making sure young people know that federal jobs offer the opportunity to do interesting work and make a difference also is critical, the organization's report noted. But those things fall under the "ask not" category-and remain the government's best selling points. That's because federal agencies can't win the compensation competition. Private sector salaries always are going to be higher, and government's nice health and retirement benefits aren't the kinds of things that entice the average college graduate to a first job.

But the inherent appeal of public service is dampened by two serious problems. The first is highlighted in the organization's research. When asked about reasons not to work at federal agencies, "too much bureaucracy" was the most common reply, by 53 percent of students. This is a generation that simply has not seen government at its best. The response to Sept. 11 was a huge overhaul of the federal bureau-cratic apparatus, and Katrina showed the limits of what that effort has accomplished thus far.

The second factor is that, despite years of reform efforts, the federal hiring process remains generally lengthy and byzantine. Whether you blame it on sheer inefficiency or factors such as merit system requirements and veterans preference, government on the whole simply is not competitive with other sectors of the economy when it comes to evaluating talent and making job offers in a timely fashion.

Prodded by groups such as the Partnership for Public Service, the government has stepped up its efforts to extol the virtues of federal service. This spring, the Office of Personnel Management unveiled a series of TV advertisements highlighting real federal employees and the fascinating work they do.

But federal agencies simply can't expect students to wait around to launch their careers because of the appeal of rewarding work in the service of their country. Young people have serious questions about how well government is serving the public. They want proof that agencies can get things done, and they aren't willing to wait around for their chance to help.

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