Blame everything from frustration with the hiring process to pay scales and cynical TV shows about American politics.
Why aren’t more young people going into government service? It’s a question that vexes policymakers and college administrators across the country. They’d like to see the best and brightest go directly into the public service pipeline. But they’re not—and partly as a result, the federal workforce is rapidly aging.
A 2017 Politico analysis found that only 17 percent of the federal workforce was under 35 years old, compared to 40 percent in the private sector. Workers under the age of 24 make up only 1.2 percent of the federal workforce, as opposed to 13 percent in private sector jobs.
Government Executive reported recently on how federal agencies are preparing for a pending exodus of older employees, and a corresponding loss of decades of institutional knowledge. More than 20 percent of employees are eligible for retirement at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Environmental Protection Agency, Treasury Department and NASA.
The retirement wave hasn’t hit yet, but it’s likely the federal government will have difficulty replacing all of those workers. The problem is, agencies are failing to attract younger people.
Take my alma mater, Princeton University, as an example. Out of the 72.2 percent of the class of 2016 that found a job immediately after graduation, only 1.6 percent—21 students—entered a field that could be categorized as directly working in the public sector. By contrast, a third of the graduating class went into jobs in the financial and consulting sectors.
This is at a university that’s home to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which ostensibly trains students to be future public servants at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. But it struggles to meet that mission. In fact, the Wilson School’s original donor family sued Princeton in 2006, alleging that the university had violated the stipulations of the original donation by failing to send more students into public service.
The university settled the suit out of court rather than drag out the legal proceedings, and the result was the creation of a new public service-oriented foundation and programs at Princeton to funnel students into public service. The university now offers grants up to $5,000 for students to take on summer internships in the public sector, and highly competitive programs like the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative create pathways into the federal government for recent graduates.
Yet not much has changed since the settlement. Only 4 percent—a paltry four students—of the undergraduate Woodrow Wilson School Class of 2017 went on to work in the public sector. Recent graduates I interviewed noted the difficulty of finding pathways into federal agencies, as well as the lower compensation in government.
“After studying public policy, I felt confused and frustrated looking for internships and long-term jobs. I found that career opportunities within the federal government were especially opaque,” said Camila Novo-Viaño, who got her undergraduate degree from the Wilson School in 2018. “While private sector companies and nonprofits organized events, coffee chats, and advertised information sessions on campus, I didn’t find the same with government jobs.”
The average starting salary for Princeton graduates in 2016 was $68,422, much higher than the typical entry-level pay in the federal government. For ambitious young college graduates, the math simply doesn’t add up.
“As the daughter of immigrants, I didn’t think entry-level federal government salaries seemed desirable or realistic,” Novo-Viaño explained. Instead, she moved to San Francisco to start work with FSG, a consulting firm for nonprofits.
Grace Rehaut, who graduated summa cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School, was on paper a top candidate for government service, but as she explained it, “I wanted the security of taking a job in the fall [of senior year], and I knew with something like the Senate, I would’ve had to wait until late spring and apply just as the jobs opened up.”
Even the graduates of Princeton’s highly selective masters of public affairs program, which offers free tuition to incentivize students to enter the public sector, saw fewer than half of its Class of 2017 enter public sector jobs after graduation.
The problem is, a lot of people entering the workforce today face an entirely different set of considerations about entering public service than previous generations. More millennials than ever are living with their parents, saddled with college debt, and earning the same median income as someone of the same age back in 1977.
The Trump administration, for that matter, has changed up the entire image of the federal government for this generation of students. The increased polarization of American politics and President Trump’s crusade against what he calls the “deep state” within the federal bureaucracy has deterred many young graduates from government service.
Indeed, a certain cynicism has set in. Almost two decades ago, political junkies watched The West Wing, and many of its younger viewers were inspired to enter public service. Now, Veep is arguably the iconic political show on TV. Its sardonic, sometimes openly contemptuous view of American political life certainly isn’t the kind of thing that spurs people to apply for jobs in government.
That said, the idealism of government service still wins out for some people.
"I chose public service over other career options because I considered it the most direct way to be involved in decisions that affect a large number of people—even at an early stage in my career,” said Lauryn Williams, a 2018 graduate of the Woodrow Wilson MPA school who is now working on a fellowship in a federal agency.
Williams had considered management consulting jobs after finishing her undergraduate degree at Stanford in 2014, but went to work for non-governmental organizations instead. When she finished her graduate degree, the private sector wasn’t even on her radar. Now, she plans on staying in government for the foreseeable future.
Other students saw the federal government as the place to make the largest impact in their fields of interest.
“I pursued public service because I liked the idea of serving a principled institution far larger than myself or any particular administration, and in the health field, I valued governmental work for its transparency, power to hold other players accountable, and ability to cement progress,” said Alex Wheatley, a current Woodrow Wilson School MPA candidate currently serving on a Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative fellowship at the Health and Human Services Department.
So, what can federal agencies do to attract more young people?
One solution is presented by the extensive work that agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau do to recruit on college campuses. The CFPB had a noticeable presence at most of the Princeton career fairs (they gave out great free pens, too). Although this is more time-consuming than posting an opening on the USAJobs website, it can go a long way towards elevating the public presence of an agency.
It also helped that CFPB employees are paid on a different structure than the standard General Schedule pay scale, and make more than the average federal government employee.
Another way to attract young talent is to cultivate an image of cutting-edge technological development and a healthy workplace culture. As Government Executive has previously reported, the National Security Agency has an advantage over private sector firms in terms of the nature of the work it does, and as a result is among the top 20 employers in the country for computer science graduates.
Personal outreach can also be highly effective. Last year, former Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu wrote an op-ed in his alma mater’s newspaper, the Daily Princetonian. He made a direct appeal to students, progressives in particular, imploring them to enter public service even if they disagree with the views of the current administration.
“Public service doesn’t take just one form,” Lu wrote. “It’s a mindset. It’s a commitment to address the problems of our time and not simply pass those problems on to the next generation.”
Some recent graduates certainly embody that mindset. Kishan Bhatt, a 2017 Woodrow Wilson School graduate now working on a Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, said public service had been a lifelong goal for him.
“The idea of working in the public interest has appealed to me since I was a teenager organizing non-partisan voter registration drives in my hometown—several years before I could vote myself.”
It’s the people like Bhatt that might spur a new wave of young people into the federal government.
Nicholas Wu is a policy analysis and data visualization fellow at National Journal. He graduated from Princeton University, where he majored in Public and International Affairs, and now lives in Washington, D.C.