Heightened interest in public service careers: where does it come from, and where can it go?
Steve Lohr writes in yesterday’s NY Times Week in Review
"What will the new map of talent flow look like? It’s early, but based on graduate school applications this spring, enrollment in undergraduate courses, preliminary job-placement results at schools, and the anecdotal accounts of students and professors, a new pattern of occupational choice seems to be emerging. Public service, government, the sciences and even teaching look to be winners, while fewer shiny, young minds are embarking on careers in finance and business consulting."
Anecdotal evidence seems to support the public service choice, from conversations I’ve had with college seniors and recent graduates. This impression has been enhanced by stories of friends of mine leaving the finance sector and seeking “more meaningful” jobs with government or non-profits.
The economy has expedited this trend, with jobs in sectors such as investment banking and consulting beginning to stagnate (or completely collapse) in the past year. But the trend is one that began well before the current economic meltdown. It coincides with the rise of the Millennial Generation (see the writings of Neil Howe and William Strauss, among others) and their orientation toward community, service to others, and a desire to be part of a greater whole, a greater cause.
This preference seems to have been concentrated early in the decade in the non-profit sector. We saw growth in the number of college students and young professionals engaging in service to their own communities or seeking to do what they can to engage in the larger world — leading efforts to alleviate suffering from Hurricane Katrina, address genocide in Darfur, or tackling many other challenges. Some recent evidence of this trend includes:
- A 42% increase in applications to Teach For America over last year — the fourth or fifth year (at least) of double-digit application growth. This increased was accompanied by a 16% rise in applications to the Peace Corps, and similar growth in many other service corps.
- The rise of new programs like Donors Choose and Facebook Causes, which allow for “micro-donations” and a new way for individuals—not just foundations or millionaires—to see the direct impact of their charitable donations, and in some cases, to more easily combine monetary donations with volunteer opportunities.
- A great expansion of social entrepreneurship, at home and abroad, seeking to address social and economic problems from the ground level; and the strengthening of incubators and support structures, including Ashoka and Echoing Green, to promote successful social entrepreneurs.
So if young people were already looking toward causes larger than themselves, the missing piece, and what has changed in the last year, is the view of young people toward government. As Lohr writes, President Obama, and the community orientation of his campaign, has something to do with the shift:
"…the appeal of public sector careers extends beyond job openings, say school officials. The laissez-faire presumption that government is not the solution but the problem, dating back to the Reagan era, has been cast aside, they say.
"The government’s need to step in with financial bailouts and recovery programs to steady the economy is seen as the immediate proof, they say, but not the only one. The environment, energy and health care also pose huge, complex challenges. “Young people today understand that government has a powerful role to play in solving these problems,” said Sandra Archibald, dean of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, where applications this year are up 26 percent.
"Government school officials also point to an Obama effect: his election as an endorsement of government activism."
Time will tell whether the current pattern of seeking out jobs in the government will continue for college graduates, but it certainly provides an opening for the President, but especially for agencies themselves, to show how they are effecting a greater good. Certainly, there will be job opportunities—with the impending retirement of a sizeable chunk of the federal workforce—but to attract top talent, government recruiters will need to understand and address the concerns and interests of Millennials.
How can government agencies take advantage of this opportunity? Here are a few thoughts that focus in communications efforts, but many of them will require real organizational change, not just good PR:
- Communicate your mission: why is your work important to the nation? Realize that while Millennials may certainly care about salary, benefits, stability, etc., they place a high priority on working for a cause that they believe in.
- Tell the story of your results: what are you doing well? what are the areas in which you hope to strengthen your impact? How will new analysts/program managers/associates contribute to real results? Here, it can be helpful to show the paths to leadership that you offer, and how you reward excellence.
- Active engagement in social media tools can help, but don’t treat the tools as ends unto themselves. A blog, facebook page, or twitter feed can be nice to have, but if it is not providing a value-add to the potential applicant, or an opportunity to engage, it won’t be worth the additional effort. Think about projects or individuals in your organization that are examples of your best work in action, and use their stories to tell yours, and to inspire conversation among your audience. Do you have employees who have the time/interest in engaging with the public? Ig so, take advantage of that interest.
The excitement that young people are showing in government hasn’t been seen since the 60’s — or possibly the 30’s. Here’s hoping that those in government leadership will be able to turn this excitement into lasting improvements for the American people.
So let me know, are there some agencies that are doing a particularly good/bad job of this?