Keeping employees could be tougher than attracting them, officials say

Although recent figures suggest that fewer college students plan to enter government service than in prior years, federal officials say holding on to new hires is perhaps a bigger human capital challenge. 

Speaking at an event sponsored by Government Executive, chief human capital officers at the Education and Veteran Affairs departments said the numbers from a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey released earlier this week are “disconcerting” -- and both are still seeing plenty of interest and resumes from younger applicants .

“Secretary Arne Duncan is prone to say he’s amazed, as he talks to stakeholders and does speaking engagements, there are so many that enjoy the mission of the Department of Education and want to get in,” said Robert Buggs, chief human capital officer at Education. “And then when we look at our employee surveys, it appears that there are too many who say they want to leave.”

The NACE study was based on an online survey of 35,000 college students pursuing bachelor degrees and higher at 599 schools in 50 states and the District of Columbia. It found that only 2.3 percent of the students planned to pursue careers in the federal government and only 6 percent planned to go into public service at any level -- the lowest number since the annual survey launched in 2008.

“That says something to us. We don’t have a culture that nurtures these individuals, that provides them with the opportunity for growth and to develop,” said John Sepúlveda, chief human capital officer at Veterans Affairs. “We’ve been hitting that real hard.”

He cited the Office of Personnel Management’s Presidential Management Fellowship program as an initiative his department was using to combat the problem. Improving marketing and branding for public service as a whole is another step, both officers said.

Sepulveda said the numbers in NACE survey were disconcerting because they could point to a “perception problem” about working in government.

“We haven’t done a good job of supporting [young employees’] aspirations,” he said. “The VA is still very hierarchical and bureaucratic. Young people thrive in flatter organizations.”

Buggs said it is important that federal agencies don’t let up retention and recruitment efforts when the economy adjusts or as the budget outlook begins to look increasingly grim for federal hires.

Several pieces of current legislation aim to freeze federal pay and limit benefits, and the 2011 Budget Control Act might result in a reduction in the overall number of government employees in fiscal 2012, according to the Partnership for Public Service data.

“Everything is on the table, so we do have to prioritize,” Buggs said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story failed to provide full name and title for John Sepúlveda. He is chief human capital officer at Veterans Affairs.

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