Better Choices

Recruiting the next generation of public servants requires the right message and the right approach.

How can federal agencies recruit a new generation to careers in public service? Agencies are struggling to fend off stiff competition from private sector employers for college graduates. And getting Generation Xers (born between 1960 and 1980) and Gen-Yers, aka millennials (born after 1980) to think of government as an employer of first choice is a big job. Both generations have different attitudes about work, bosses and organizations than their baby boomer parents. Here are some ways executives can secure needed talent and forestall a recruiting crisis:

  • Streamline hiring and recruiting. In the competitive war for talent, speed is the most critical factor in hiring highly qualified graduates. Yet it isn't unheard of for candidates for federal jobs to wait 100 days or more to hear about a job offer. Agencies must streamline hiring and recruiting. The inability to hire quickly is a competitive disadvantage since private sector employers often hire people on the spot, dangling job sweeteners such as signing bonuses to the close deals.
  • Appeal to young people's values. The two sentiments young people express most are patriotism and a desire to preserve the environment. Agencies should leverage those interests to encourage people to consider public service careers. Recruiting messages for these jobs should include stirring references to patriotism and protection of the nation's borders and way of life.
  • Other federal jobs should be pitched as good choices for job seekers interested in protecting the environment. At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Chief Human Capital Officer Jim McDermott seeks out graduates with engineering degrees who also want to combat global warming. NRC's mission is to safeguard the health and safety of people, the environment and the nation by regulating civilian use of nuclear power and materials. "Our agency is concerned with public health and safety and environmental protection," says McDermott. "These are green issues that resonate strongly with many people today."
  • Build strong brand identity. Some agencies, including NASA and the Army, enjoy visible and positive brand identity among Gen-Yers. Others don't. It's essential to create a brand that will appeal to young people-online, on campus, and in ads and videos-and get them excited about working in government.
  • Pre-qualify job candidates. Professor James Perry of Indiana University says screening job candidates for "intrinsic motivators"-altruism, the desire to make a difference, and interest in giving back to one's community and country-can ensure retention and employee alignment with an agency's mission and goals. Agencies also must keep up extensive on-campus recruitment year round.
  • Use high-touch recruiting approaches. Does your agency connect with Gen-Yers? The Army uses video games to recruit, while agencies such as NRC host pizza parties to woo job candidates. Who an agency has representing them at college career fairs also matters. "Agencies should send more young people-new hires-to work the booth at recruiting events," says Linda Scales, director of career services at the University of San Diego, adding that Gen-Yers are "high-touch and interactive."
  • Don't limit recruiting to young people. Agencies should target more than college graduates and 30-somethings. They also should consider baby boomers who have retired from successful private sector careers. Many corporate boomers are interested in encore careers that provide the opportunity to give back to the community or country. Boomers have a strong work ethic and represent a natural talent pool that agencies can tap to backfill jobs left by retiring federal workers.

Executives must focus on long-term workforce needs, develop, invest in effective recruiting methods that are comparable to the private sector's, and deploy them aggressively and consistently.

Bill Leidinger is former assistant secretary for management and chief human capital officer at the Education Department. He can be reached at

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