USDA confronts challenge of youth recruitment

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was inspired to serve the public by a few simple words from John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." But in a new era with nearly 50 percent of federal workers reaching retirement eligibility by 2015, a salary freeze and public opinion of government employees becoming increasingly dismal, the question of how to attract young people to government jobs becomes simultaneously vital and more difficult.

At the Harvard Institute of Politics' Pathways to Public Service luncheon on Wednesday, Vilsack outlined how USDA plans to attract students and recent graduates.

"I understand, probably better than anybody, that the federal government, federal agencies are challenged to encourage bright, young people," he said. "We decided that one way we could do that would be to transform the culture within USDA. That we would commit to having a USDA that is as diverse as America, that we would have a high-performing workplace and that we would make a concerted effort to reach out to young people all over the country."

The key, he said, is giving students individual responsibility.

"It's not just an internship where we bring great, young people in and we say, 'I need a cup of coffee, go down to the Starbucks in the basement.' Or, 'here are 48 copies of something that I need,' " he said. "These internships are structured so that every single intern has a project of significance that they must accomplish."

And that weight of responsibility won't change in March when the department adopts the new governmentwide Pathways Program to bring on students and recent graduates. "The only thing that's going to change is basically the names," USDA program analyst Wenndy Carrasco said.

Agriculture also is looking at the ratio of managers to lower level employees. "If you want to keep workers, if you want to inspire them, you got to say to them, 'We trust you. We're going to hold you accountable for results, but we're not going to necessarily micromanage your work. And we're not going to have somebody looking over your shoulder,' " Vilsack said.

He also announced Wednesday that Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and some of the undersecretaries at the department will join him on a nationwide tour of 30 to 40 colleges and universities this year to recruit students.

Though Partnership for Public Service Vice President Tim McManus lauded USDA for reaching out to college campuses, he said the public sector needs to involve young employees and past interns in the recruitment process. "As significant as it is and as important as it is to have Secretary Vilsack [on campus] … at the end of the day, for somebody who's a 22 year old soon-to-be-graduate senior, they want to know what life is like for that 23 year old, who's recently made the transition [from college to public service]," McManus said.

Vilsack said USDA also has a solid plan to retain employees. The department is in the process of establishing a career development program that will be linked to a virtual university, accessible by interns and employees alike. The program will look at an individual's career goals and show him or her how to accomplish them through USDA.

This "will encourage these interns [and employees] to understand that if you work at USDA we will work with you to come up with an individual development plan for you, personalized for you so that you understand your pathway to success within USDA," Vilsack said.

He highlighted the department's use of social media, both as a recruitment tool and internally, as a method of bringing employees together. McManus said the nonprofit Partnership's research has shown that social media is effective in acquiring and retaining a young workforce. "Students use social media, students use technology actually to get a ton of information," he said. "The more agencies [can use technology], the more effective they will be."

"It's difficult because we have 121,000 people and you can't move that ship as quickly as I would like, but we're essentially moving it in the right direction," Vilsack said.

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