When she entered the University of Michigan to pursue a graduate degree in social work, Sarah Leder thought she wanted to work one-on-one with people. It wasn’t long, however, until Leder realized that hours of interpersonal therapy was not for her. One of her professors suggested she look at another option: politics.
An effort to recruit a new generation of employees includes job fairs and more internships
“Going into public service can help you realize how much bigger everything can be,” says Leder, who now works as a data, research, and evaluation specialist in the Office of Health Equity within the Veterans Health Administration. She helps veterans all over the country gain access to the medical support and services they need. “I consider myself very lucky that I found a job in an office where I can genuinely say I care about my work.”
The federal government is still the largest employer in the United States with more than 2 million full-time employees on the books. But the workforce — the people who occupy positions inside Cabinet-level agencies and other independent federal organizations — is old, and getting older. Close to one-third of federal employees are over 55, and another third is eligible for retirement within the next couple of years. Meanwhile, only 8 percent of government employees are under the age of 30 — the very people who need to acquire the knowledge to ensure the gears of government continue once senior employees trade policymaking for pina coladas.
“It’s going to be a real tsunami here pretty soon,” says Mika Cross, a federal workplace expert who testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability in 2021 about the need to hire younger, more diverse talent.
The age divide has been happening for a while. Strategic human capital management, a fancy phrase for managing well, has been flagged for two decades on the High-Risk List, which is compiled by the General Accountability Office every two years to alert federal managers to potential problems worth fixing. In 2010, 60,000 interns, students and recent college graduates alike, worked in paid jobs inside federal agencies. By the first year of the pandemic, that number had dropped to 4,000.
During the last two years, just 25 percent of the nearly 258,000 federal employees hired have been between the ages of 20 and 29, a figure that suggests an inability or a refusal to look at the bigger picture. Cross attributes this pattern, in part, to the federal government’s inability to be creative when it comes to attracting young talent looking for meaningful work experience.
Now the U.S. government is attempting a massive about-face. One of the earliest executive orders signed by President Biden in 2021 included specific language around promoting paid internships. In the most recent budget for fiscal year 2023, federal agencies committed to hiring more than 35,000 interns over the next year. And at the outset of 2023, the Office of Personnel Management issued the heads of federal offices a memorandum outlining specific strategies to help increase the number of paid interns and early-career employees in their respective agencies.
Kick-starting the federal Pathways Program is one of the first steps. The program, established by President Barack Obama through a 2010 executive order, includes the Presidential Management Fellows Program, internships for students in high school and college, and programs for recent college graduates.
“It’s one of the biggest programs we use,” says Tiffany Sykes, a director of human resources at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Cincinnati office.
Although current EPA administrator Michael Regan got his start at the agency as a college intern, his experience might be an outlier: Just 8.4 percent of the agency’s staffers are under age 30.
One of those is Liz Martinez, 29, who cites job security and work-life balance as two reasons for leaving her sales job at T-Mobile after seven years to become an EPA staffing specialist.
“I realized that all of the supervisors I interviewed with started as interns,” Martinez says. “And then talking about promotion potential and the overall mission, it just felt like such a good fit. I hate that I didn’t think of it sooner.”
Some federal agencies are doing better than others at recruiting younger workers. The Departments of Agriculture, Justice and Homeland Security have workforces where at least 8 percent of their personnel are in the under-30 group.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, where Leder got her start as a presidential management fellow and where 670 Pathways professionals — 261 interns, 409 recent college grads — are working today, is at 6 percent. While VA Secretary Denis McDonough sees his agency’s mission as appealing to potential employees, he says recruitment efforts needed to be updated.
Job fairs around the country are a new addition. In Waco, Texas, McDonough attended a fair organized by VA that attracted more than 650 people he said. VA extended job offers to 178 people that day.
VA also offers new financial incentives. New hires can receive a 10 percent retention bonus at the beginning of the year, instead of at the end. In the area of hospital staffing, which is a large part of the department, VA provides $40,000 in annual education loan repayments for each year a medical student is in residency, up to a maximum of four years. In return, those doctors work for the agency for the same number of years.
For college students burdened by student loans, VA touts its Education Debt Reduction Program, which makes available up to $200,000 to help repay college debt in exchange for a term of service. And for those seeking graduate school training, VA will help pay the way. In 2022 alone, VA provided more than $182 million in scholarship and loan repayment programs.
With the tech industry’s spate of layoffs and cutbacks over the past several months, Silicon Valley has become a recruiting target as VA managers aim to fully implement zero-trust cybersecurity measures by 2027. “But we also have to get more competitive on salary,” says McDonough. “So we’re working with the Office of Personnel Management on special salary rates for IT experts.”
The incentives are a good start, says Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization interested in building up a new generation of public servants. These sorts of perks tend to attract younger millennials and members of Generation Z, many of whom took their first jobs during the economic head winds of the pandemic years, he said.
Even more important, though, is keeping those employees. According to an analysis of fiscal year 2021, the attrition rate for entry-level federal employees under 30 was close to 12 percent on average, according to data from Fed Scope.
“The talent that I know today, they want to make a difference,” Stier says. “But we’re not retaining the young people that make it through, because our government isn’t investing in them.”
As a presidential management fellow, Leder had the chance to see what work in the federal government could be like before she applied for a full-time job. Now she receives on-the-job training — as her job evolved, she learned to code, and she says that people who have worked in the office for much longer are eager to pass down what they’ve learned.
“People here have a lot of institutional knowledge they’ve gained through the years,” she says. “And having new blood, new people, who are excited about the work — how could you not be excited to share that information?”
Andrew Zaleski is a writer based near Washington, D.C., who covers science, technology, and business.