Calling All Leaders

Experts agree that the federal government should be hiring more new graduates, but worry about whether it knows how.
June 22, 2011

WASHINGTON -- At a Senate hearing Tuesday on inspiring students to seek federal government work, one thing was clear: the feds need to do a better job of recruiting and hiring recent graduates. What was less clear was whether they know how.

"Within the next five years, the federal government is expected to face one of the largest retirement waves in the nation's history," said Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat and chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. "In today's economy, many students are graduating only to find that they are locked out of a market that is not producing enough jobs." At the same time, he said, federal government jobs in scientific, national security and medical fields are difficult to fill. "We must develop innovative strategies to bridge this gap."

Officials from government and academe testified at Tuesday's hearing, offering their takes on what works and what doesn't in inspiring students to careers in federal service. Many of them expressed high hopes for the Pathways Programs, which President Obama established in December as a supplement to traditional federal hiring. The current system places so much emphasis on experience, critics say, that new graduates don't get consideration. The process not only keeps America's brightest young people from getting government jobs, it discourages them from applying, Akaka said.

Obama charged the federal Office of Personnel Management to draft regulations for these programs, which aim to recruit interns and permanent employees who are well-qualified for employment (whether they've worked in Washington before or not). At the hearing, OPM's deputy director, Christine Griffin, said the regulations are complete and will be released for public comment soon.

One person who will be particularly glad to see them is Laurel McFarland, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration. "There is overwhelming evidence from recent years that the existing competitive hiring system simply does not work for graduate students, who have advanced training but little full-time work experience, especially in federal service," McFarland said in her testimony. "Ultimately, the Pathways executive order is not about the narrow task of hiring students and recent graduates. Federal hiring reform is about nothing less than ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government in the years ahead, and our ability to tackle the complicated public problems and fiscal pressures we will face."

But the hiring process isn't the only barrier to recruiting talent, said Timothy McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, an organization trying to "revitalize public service and improve government performance" through a better workforce. Among the problems: cumbersome hiring rules, the lack of a long-term recruiting strategy, difficulty retaining talent, lack of knowledge and interest among prospective employees and a general shortage of talent. "The bottom line is that agency leadership must make recruiting and hiring a priority in order for success to be achieved," McManus said.

McManus is also encouraged by the executive order, but presented a series of recommendations for Congress, many of which his colleagues on the panel also endorsed. Chief among them was oversight: Congress must make sure, they said, that federal agencies are communicating their needs to colleges and have the necessary resources and training to take on new employees.

Panelists also stressed the importance of data and metrics in evaluating recruiting and hiring effectiveness. (The Federal Hiring Process Improvement Act, which Akaka introduced last Congress, passed the Senate but never became law. That act would require agencies to revamp hiring and recruitment using many strategies discussed here, including data collection.) McManus said that agencies should collect and regularly report data on manager satisfaction with applicants and applicant satisfaction with the process, and data on time-to-hire for internal and external candidates. Congress should also require agencies to conduct exit surveys when employees leave their positions to better understand why they're departing, McManus said. (Often, panelists said, they leave because poor recruiting meant they didn't know what they were getting into, or they don't receive the on-the-job development they need to execute their tasks well.)

But perhaps the biggest question -- and one with an elusive answer -- is how colleges and the federal government can best work together to make sure qualified students and graduates are getting these jobs. It's essential that both entities better communicate not only what these jobs entail and what skills they require, panelists said, but also the fact that they're even out there -- and need to be filled. Programs like the Department of Energy's Student Ambassadors bring a human element to recruiting that can make all the difference, said Michael C. Kane, chief human capital officer at the DOE. That program sends DOE employees to campuses to talk to students about what it's like to work at the agency and the federal government in general, creating a "continual and nonrenewable resource for us," Kane said.

"Clearly, on college campuses we need to do more -- move beyond career services and connect with faculty in those areas where government needs talent the most," McManus said. The Pathways Programs give young employees their first taste of government, but the agencies must keep them interested, he said. "That's a great first step. We need to capitalize on that."


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