5 Tips for Attracting Young People to Government Careers

Reform must extend beyond the hiring process.

Getting a government job has frequently been referred to as an exercise in persistence. With lengthy time-to-hire stats and a security clearance process averaging between 200 and 500 days, entry-level professionals have long known if you need a job fast,  you’re probably not going to work for the government. An Accenture poll notes that just 19 percent of college graduates would be willing to work at the state, local or federal government level. On its face, that statistic may be solid (1 out of 5 isn’t terrible), but the reality is, it takes fortitude, not just interest, in order to pursue a government career.

Ensuring only the strong survive may be a part of the government’s strategy of attaining the best and the brightest. But because applications are often met with months of uncertainty for a generation used to getting second-by-second updates on social media, that inertia seems less like security, and more like inefficiency.  

“Although intelligence work is more cutting-edge than ever, the government’s hiring process is mired in Cold War-era bureaucracy and secrecy,” wrote the Intelligence and National Security Alliance in a recent op-ed. “Agencies’ reluctance to reveal the existence of sensitive roles means that applicants are often unaware of what jobs they are being considered for.”

The ambiguity continues through the security clearance application process, where individuals wait for months for a successful security clearance determination, often with no idea of who they can contact for an update. Many applicants flood online forums to share their stories and offer tips to others who have been waiting for upwards of a year.

“You might consider writing a letter to one of your members of Congress,” writes a visitor to the ClearanceJobsBlog Discussions site. “After waiting a year, I sent in a letter and was finally interviewed about two months later. I honestly have no idea if the letter made a difference, but it might have and it certainly didn’t hurt. If nothing else it can give you a sense of DOING something.”

Do Work that Matters

Research continually shows that in addition to monetary compensation, mission is one of the biggest motivators when it comes to pursuing a job or doing well once you get there. That’s one area where government could be successful.

The federal government’s annual Best Places to Work rankings are based on the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey of more than 485,000 government employees across 410 agencies. A similar study of the private sector by Mercer/Sirota polled private sector employees. Each of the questions revealed how much employees trust their leadership, and if they feel their contributions matter to their mission.

In 26 out of 28 questions, the private sector scored higher than the federal government. The private sector far outpaced the federal government in employee resourcing, perceptions that awards reflect actual performance, and the utilization of employee talents.

In the area of pay, private sector and government employees felt almost identically when it comes to being paid what they’re worth. Where the federal government lags is in leadership. The private sector outpaced the federal government by at least 10 points in trust and faith in their leaders, as well as leadership effectiveness.

Over the past decade, the federal government has invested new resources in attracting young people to civil service, from hiring student ambassadors, to offering on-campus training on how to apply for a federal job. But the reforms must extend beyond the hiring process.

INSA recently offered a five-step roadmap to help the federal government make intelligence community careers, in particular, more attractive.

  1. Instill a sense of mission and patriotism. “The country’s political leaders can model good behavior by changing the tenor of debates over government’s role in society, so that public service is praised rather than denigrated.”
  2. Offer higher pay for those with in-demand technical skills. “A 2017 report by the Congressional Budget Office indicated that graduates with advanced degrees earned 18 percent less in government than in the private sector.”  
  3. Attract mid-level professionals, with existing experienced and advanced skills. “To appeal to a generation of job-changers, IC recruitment efforts must emphasize that employees can gain a wide range of experiences over the course of a government career. In the IC, in other words, employees can regularly change jobs without changing employers.”
  4. Promote career opportunities with private firms supporting the Intelligence Community. “Because cleared contractors are a critical component of the trusted government workforce, a highly skilled person working at one of these companies is contributing to the IC’s mission in a work environment that is flexible enough to hire and retain them.”
  5. Improve the security clearance process. “The length of time required to clear someone drives away top talent—particularly those with marketable technical skills—and prevents critical national security missions from being fulfilled.”

The government remains a great career choice for young people. But if critical steps aren’t taken to address the issues currently preventing young people from pursuing government careers, what is already a critical shortage of personnel will only get worse.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com and a former Defense Department employee.