​Millennials’ Romance With Federal Service Need Not Last a Lifetime

Even in short stints, young workers bring a lot to government.


Not every happy and fulfilling relationship is life-long, and federal service does not need to be, either.

In a recent report, the Office of Personnel Management said the median amount of time millennials -- those born after 1980 -- spend in government service is just 3.8 years. A recent Government Executive article said the report shows “millennials’ romance with government is short-lived.” But even four-year relationships that end in breakup can ultimately benefit and enrich both parties.

A portion of the federal workforce will and should be composed of lifers. But the government should reorient its recruiting approach so that a larger percentage of new hires come in with the expectation that their tours will only constitute one chapter of a long career that spans the private and public sectors. The millennial generation is tailor-made for this kind of initiative.

More so than previous generations, millennials seek variety in their professional lives. They are more likely to follow a career lattice and move between many fields, not a career ladder in which they work for a single employer. Generation-wide, “the majority of millennials claim that making the world a better place is a priority.” Federal agencies should seek to harness these twin aspirations by bringing millennials into government for short stints, injecting energy and ambition into often staid bureaucracies and giving millennials a chance to serve a cause larger than themselves.

Millennials can be drawn to government not only right out of college, but also later in their careers. For high-achievers, federal service could be a way station on the path to graduate school. Millennials, especially top talent, seek graduate degrees to build skills and further distinguish themselves from a workforce in which bachelor’s degrees are commonplace.  At the same time, most graduate schools prefer applicants who have had a few years of professional experience.

The solution? Pitch government service as a post-college, pre-graduate school destination, much like the Peace Corps or Teach for America. This entails aggressively recruiting talented students who might otherwise spend their early to mid-20s in the private sector -- whether at management consultancies, Wall Street banks, or Silicon Valley tech firms. It also requires pitching graduate school admissions committees on the value of government service as preparation for advanced study.

One way to draw more millennials would be to simplify the application process for government jobs. A generation accustomed to auto-filled electronic documents is easily turned off by Byzantine applications from a pre-Google era. The OPM director has said improving the USAJobs website is a priority. A similar effort to streamline the Peace Corps application, which reduced the time it takes to complete the form from eight hours to one, yielded a 400 percent increase in applications year over year.

The federal government would derive from these early-career stints the same benefits as private sector firms who employ similar high-achievers for abbreviated tours. They bring fresh ideas, flexibility and zeal -- especially if they’re hoping to leverage success in government into prestigious graduate school placements. Those are qualities that can benefit the government -- or any institution.

Agencies also should recruit millennials who have established themselves in other careers. These workers may also stay in government for fewer than four years, but even if their tours are sabbaticals from private sector careers, they would introduce new thinking. These workers then can bring public sector experience with them when they return to their previous careers.

A number of fellowship programs already promote cross-pollination between the public and private sectors. Fuse Corps, for example, pairs innovative entrepreneurs with local government leaders to work on a wide range of social challenges from education to health care. The proposed Congressional Clerkship Initiative would bring rising stars in the legal profession to Congress to work on legislation before continuing their careers in private firms or academia. I have proposed a similar fellowship program for the Intelligence Community.

The federal government should broaden such initiatives to make federal service a part of more people’s careers. The government could ease the transition by making it easier to roll over Thrift Savings Plan investments to traditional retirement accounts or by allowing former federal employees to continue contributing to their TSP accounts.

Attracting more millennials to federal service even for a few years would improve government performance by bringing in high-achievers before and after they have gained valuable skills in other careers. It could also reduce widespread distrust in government. If more Americans incorporated federal service into their careers, the government might be less maligned and seen more as a joint enterprise of the governed.

“Talented young people don’t dream of becoming great bureaucrats,” Fareed Zakaria writes. This may be true, but talented millennials do dream of being innovators, leading lives of purpose, and contributing to the public good. The same report that noted millennials spend only a few years in federal service also found that 86 percent believe that the work they do is important and 75 percent believe that government has the potential to address societal challenges. They should be given greater opportunities to pursue those lofty aims in government, even if the romance lasts only a few years. And the government they serve, so often unloved, would benefit too.

Matthew F. Ferraro (born in the early 1980s) served as special assistant and executive assistant in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2006 to 2009, before going to law school.

(Image via aslysun/