Employer of Choice

New workers have good things to say about federal employment.

Here's a pop quiz on federal hiring:

  • How old would you guess the average entry-level federal hire is?
  • What's the most common way entry-level employees find out about federal jobs?
  • How long do most new employees plan to work for the federal government?

One might imagine the typical applicant to be a 24-year-old fresh out of college who surfed the Web to find a federal job just until a lucrative private sector offer comes in. The Merit Systems Protection Board recently surveyed 1,000 new federal employees to see whether such common assumptions held up. In fact, they don't.

Here are the answers to the pop quiz:

  • The average new hire is 33, and ages ranged from 21 to 84. The median age was 29, meaning half were under 29 and half were over.
  • Friends and relatives are the most common way new employees find out about federal jobs. The Internet comes in second for new hires 30 or older. For the under-30 set, the second most common source of job information is a college fair or a school placement office.
  • Most new employees plan to work for the government until they retire. That means nearly half the 20-somethings entering the federal workforce are looking out three decades into the future and still see themselves working for Uncle Sam.
The MSPB survey responses from new hires blow holes in some of the common generational stereotypes. The survey suggests that Generation Xers and millennials want the same things baby boomers want-good, stable federal jobs in which they can make a difference for their country (another common refrain among respondents). They use their personal connections to find jobs the same way other generations have. And many work in the private sector before they seek employment with Uncle Sam, meaning they view the government as a destination employer, not as a stop along their journey to a hefty private sector paycheck.

Indeed, almost one in four new hires were willing to wait six months or more to land a federal job. Many were waiting for jobs that were filled not through the government's traditional competitive service hiring process, but through so-called excepted service processes that allow hiring managers to bypass many of the rules that usually slow the hiring process. Federal hiring managers now use those streamlined processes more often than the traditional ones. Critics say, however, excepted services processes can narrow the pool of applicants under consideration. If that's true, then it's notable that so many hiring managers are using them anyway. It suggests they're getting more than enough applicants for jobs, dispelling the myth that no one wants to work for the federal government.

The truth is, lots of people do. Attracted by meaningful missions, generous benefits and job security, a diverse group of recent college grads and experienced workers are banging on Uncle Sam's door for employment. Is your office struggling to get new workers? Then yours is an anomaly. What are other federal offices doing that yours is not?

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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