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Getting Millennials—and Penn Grads— into the Federal Government

July 13, 2016
The United States federal government employs over two million people.[1] According to research conducted by the non-partisan, non-profit Partnership for Public Service, people under age 30 make up only 7% of permanent full-time federal employees.

By Kat McKay, C’17, Summer Research Fellow, Partnership for Public Service


[2] This same age group constitutes 23% of the U.S. workforce overall, a proportion that is rising as older employees retire. The Obama administration and other federal leaders recognize that the public sector needs to increase its efforts to attract and retain high-achieving entry-level talent. To facilitate this, President Obama created the Pathways Programs through an executive order in 2010.[3] The Programs’ initiatives aim to introduce current students and recent graduates to career opportunities in the federal government, including paid summer internships and special one-year rotations.

In spite of these efforts, though, the public sector has had a difficult time competing against the private sector for high-achieving millennials. Recent Career Services data reveals that very few Penn students choose to pursue government jobs directly after graduation. Only 2% of the 1,488 members of Penn’s Class of 2015 who reported entering full-time work after graduation entered the government at any level. [4] Only 7 College grads, 3 Engineering grads, and 1 Wharton grad reported entering the federal government, including Capitol Hill, meaning very few grads entered federal agencies.[4] Data from other recent career reports demonstrate similar levels of government engagement.

           A few different factors are probably driving Penn grads’ preference for private and non-profit jobs. The Partnership for Public Service, which works closely with the federal government to improve its effectiveness and efficiency, reports that only 7% of federal agency internships result in the intern taking a full-time position, compared to around 50% in the private sector. [5] Considering 27% of the Class of 2015 found jobs through a previous employer– which generally means through a previous summer internship—students may find themselves committed to private sector full-time work without even pursuing a formal job search.[4]

There is also a perception that government agencies do not provide the type of culture or set of benefits that millennials want. A 2016 survey issued to millennials by Deloitte found that pay and financial benefits drive our age group’s choice of organization more than any other factor.[6] The average starting salary for the 7 College graduates from the Class of 2015 who entered the federal government was $45,652, which is more than $10,000 less than the average starting salary for College grads in the Class of 2015 in general. [7]

The Deloitte survey also indicated that millennials value having a good work/life balance, opportunities to develop and earn leadership positions, and flexibility.[6] A 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll of 18-29 year old Americans found that only 3% of respondents trust the federal government to “do the right thing” all of the time, 20% trust the federal government most of the time, and 21% believe the federal government “never” does the right thing. Only 27% of respondents agreed with the statement “the idea of working in some form of public service is appealing to me.” [8]

With this sort of negative attitude pervasive among young people, the federal government has to spend time and resources working to attract recent college graduates. The Partnership has encouraged federal agencies to use social media to recruit younger employees. They have also issued recommendations about how to speed up the federal hiring process, including having agencies develop resume-based hiring practices instead of requiring application essays.

Young people are not necessarily familiar with how the federal government recruits, either. Federal agencies post open positions on the website USA Jobs, but only for a set number of days—sometimes less than a week. These positions often require a specific set of qualifications or years of relevant experience. Penn Class of 2016 graduate Sean Foley, who is interested in possibly working for the government, said that “USA Jobs is a website that is too often difficult to navigate and unhelpful.” USA Jobs does offer a search tool that lists federal occupations by college major, and allows students to search specifically for entry-level positions.

Unlike the private sector, which tends to screen new hires based on their potential, the federal government tends to screen based on previous experience. Tim McManus, the Partnership’s Vice President of Operations and Education and Outreach, told Bloomberg BNA that “if somebody is at the GS-12 level and they leave, the tendency is to fill at the GS-12 level.” [5] Recent college graduates usually qualify for GS-5 or GS-7 level positions. GS refers to “General Schedule”, the federal government’s ranking and salary system for white-collar employees. Agencies need to open up entry-level positions that will allow less experienced applicants to qualify for higher-ranked positions over time.

The Partnership for Public Services runs a website, gogovernment.org, that serves as a resource for people of all experience levels looking to apply for federal jobs. They also provide training for college career services offices that details how students can apply for (and be accepted to) federal positions. But while it is inspiring to see non-governmental organizations putting in effort to attract qualified young people to the government, ultimately the responsibility to recruit and retain millennials falls on federal agencies themselves.

Chart source: FedScope data compiled by the author

Age of the Federal Workforce

Age of Federal Full-time Employees in Percentages 

  [1] Office of Personnel Management, “Historical Federal Workforce Tabels,” 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/data-analysis-documentation/federal-employment-reports/historical-tables/total-government-employment-since-1962/. [Accessed 20 June 2016].

  [2]Partnership for Public Service, “Inspire and Hire Mission-Critical Talent,” 2016. [Online]. Available: http://ourpublicservice.org/issues/inspire-and-hire/index.php. [Accessed 20 June 2016].

  [3] B. Obama, “Executive Order: Recruiting and Hiring Students and Recent Graduates,” Office of the Press Secretary , 27 December 2010. [Online]. Available: http://op.bna.com.s3.amazonaws.com/gr.nsf/r%3FOpen%3dllbe-8ckma8. [Accessed 20 June 2016].

  [4] A. Ipsas, M. DeAngelis and V. Lee, “Class of 2015 Career Plans Survey,” University of Pennsylvania Career Services , [Online]. Available: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/files/Class2015CareerPlans.pdf. [Accessed 20 June 2016]. 

  [5] L. C. LaBrecque, “Government Lags in Making Interns Employees,” Bloomberg BNA, 25 May 2016.

  [6] Deloitte, “The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey,” Deloitte, 2016.

  [7] A. M. Gercke, A. Perkins-Chatterton and A. Ispas, “College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Class of 2015 Career Plans Survey Report,” University of Pennsylvania Career Services, February 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/files/FINAL_REPORT_COMBINED.pdf. [Accessed 20 June 2016].

  [8] Harvard University Institue of Politics, “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service 29th Edition,” 3 April 2016. [Online]. Available: http://iop.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/content/160423_Harvard%20IOP_Spring%202016_TOPLINE_u.pdf. [Accessed 20 June 2016].

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