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The Biden administration’s path to a green economy runs through Gen Z

COMMENTARY | The winning strategy? Engaging with young people where they are and paying them what they’re worth.

As a momentous election year continues, the federal government is angling to snap up recent college graduates to meet its ambitious tech and green energy agenda. Federal job openings have spiked in the wake of the Office of Personnel Management’s goal to pull more than 20,000 new tech employees into the public sector. 

And applicants are biting. To provide just one example, the average number of applications to software developer positions within the federal government has increased 2:1 compared to non-government positions over the last year alone. Similar trends can be spotted in the data science and information security fields. 

However, despite these promising numbers, competition for early career tech talent remains stiff — and the federal government is often the one to lose out. Tech majors have serious options in today’s job market, and apply to twice as many positions as their peers on average across a variety of fields. 

What’s more, the government has to compete with the salaries and perks of Big Tech: a computer science major can make tens of thousands more at a private company than she can working in the public sector. 

The federal  government cannot achieve its clean energy or tech goals without finding new ways to capitalize on growing interest from recent graduates. That will take modernizing its methods of finding, recruiting, and compensating candidates with the aim of becoming a competitive employer in the tech and energy sectors. Here are three recommendations to help the federal government strengthen its outreach and recruitment strategy.

First, when it comes to outreach to potential candidates, many government agencies still focus their efforts on strategies like in-person career fairs. However, virtual and hybrid events can be both more cost-effective and more far reaching: most government agencies only have the staff and funding to focus in-person recruiting efforts on a few dozen schools a year. Given that nearly 90% of students prefer to attend an informational hiring event before applying to a job, making these fairs more accessible to more people just makes sense. By moving some of their recruitment to a virtual format, agencies can expand their hiring pool by the thousands and meet students from all over the country exactly where they are. 

Expanding paid internship opportunities, too, can help federal agencies attract far more attention from applicants. In the last decade, the federal government has cut the number of internships available to applicants by the thousands; among those few offered, many are unpaid, limiting access for many students even further. That dearth of opportunities for work experience means that students and recent graduates have fewer onramps into the public sector, and few if any chances to try out the federal workplace environment before committing to a position. 

While many of the federal government’s internship positions remain unpaid, there is clear evidence that they work for employers and aspiring workers alike. One survey undertaken by the National Association of Colleges and Employers finds that, on average, more than half of eligible interns become full-time employees after their internship ends (job offers are even more likely for paid interns), and that a clear majority of businesses view internships as their most effective means of recruiting new workers. By offering more paid internship opportunities, the federal government can stand out among potential employers: one analysis suggests that paid internship listings receive 43 more applicants on average than unpaid internship positions.

Finally, It’s unavoidable that when it comes to compensation, federal salaries simply can’t compete with the private sector. Given that fiscal security is top of mind for Gen Z job applicants, the majority of whom are carrying substantial student debt, federal agencies can and must rethink how they compensate candidates. 

To lure graduates, those agencies who can’t match private sector salaries outright should let their well-established targeted financial benefits (e.g. offering substantive retirement savings programs, student loan repayment support, or tuition reimbursement) be the center of their recruitment strategies. Demand is high: one in five students in a recent survey said they view student loan benefits in particular as essential to any job they take. The federal government’s recent recruitment strategy for tech relies on pay hikes that still fall below what the private sector can offer; instead of trying to compete with Big Tech in a race it cannot win, the federal government can set itself apart from other employers by throwing a spotlight on their existing roster of strong employee benefits.  

Under the Biden administration, the federal government is driving to become a powerful agent of change across the semiconductor, clean energy, and advanced manufacturing sectors. The only way to reach this goal is a wide-scale overhaul of its outreach strategies to appeal to early-career talent in these sectors. By engaging with young people where they are and paying them what they’re worth, the federal government can meet this crucial moment to secure the future of the federal workforce.

Christine Cruzvergara previously served as Associate Provost & Executive Director for Career Education at Wellesley College. She currently serves as Chief Education Strategy Officer at Handshake.