Gen Z could lead a renaissance in public service, if only they could step into it

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If you had to guess, what percentage of the federal government do you think is under 30? A year and a half ago, I probably would have said about 20%, maybe 15%. I knew the percentage was lower in the public sector than in the private sector, but I never imagined it was as low as 7%, the real statistic.

The numbers are even worse in technology. Only 3% of the 84,097 government technical specialists are under 30, while 14% of IT people are over 60. In some agencies, such as in the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of technical specialists over 60 -30 counterparts 19 to 1.

These numbers alone are troubling, but combined with the fact that 25% of federal employees plan for retirement over the next five years, the lack of young people in government threatens the very health of the federal system. A total of 150,000 federal employees are expected to retire in the near future, leaving a vacuum of leadership and expertise within the federal government.

So why are young people not entering the public service? It is not for lack of interest. According to a report By the Public Service Partnership and the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 24.9% of students ranked government (federal, state and local) as one of their top three target sectors. Yet only 2% of students surveyed planned to enter the federal public service after graduation. As a 21 year old student myself, I can confirm this firsthand. My peers are some of the most passionate, motivated, and service-minded people you will ever meet. They want to work in government – the barriers to entry are just too high.

Trying to go through the beast known as the federal hiring process is a daunting task. The sheer number of government-specific rules and the absurdly long waiting periods are mind-boggling and overwhelming. USAJobs is a confusing and frustrating website to navigate. Plus, the process can seem incredibly impersonal; a friend of mine described the process as “applying to a black box”. And the private sector makes it so much easier. Businesses come to campus. They organize information sessions and bring in recent alumni to present the company. They interview on campus, offer offers on campus, and hire people within 24 hours. There is a pipeline to the private sector, but not to the public sector.

Fortunately, there are ways to create one.

First, the Office of Personnel Management and the HR departments of specific agencies need to digitize and simplify the application process. USAJobs should be streamlined, redesigned to be more user-friendly, and should allow applicants to use their regular resumes instead of the federal resumes. The initial application should be shortened, making it easier for applicants to apply.

Second, agency recruiters should focus on building one-on-one connections with potential Gen Z hires. This can be done by building relationships with college career centers, reaching out to candidates through social media like LinkedIn and Twitter, and by connecting with relevant student organizations on campus and industry-specific organizations.

Third, recruiters should prioritize diversity and raising awareness of underrepresented communities. Government agencies should make an effort to connect with career centers at historically black colleges and universities as well as universities in rural areas. Agencies should also recruit current employees from under-represented backgrounds to travel to campuses and help with diversity recruiting efforts.

As young people gain a foothold in the labor market and occupy positions of power, they will increasingly occupy the public sector. I call it the Renaissance of the Public Service. The next decade is about to transfer massive amounts of new talent into the public sector. Gen Zers are motivated and eager to work in the public sector for a bigger purpose than themselves. We just need to make government jobs more accessible. Lawmakers, senior officials, career officials and activists must work in tandem to make this possible.

Ultimately, this country’s greatest asset is our people: individuals who dare to believe in change when the status quo is intransigence. People who believe that the good of our country will come first.

Kaitlyn Rentala is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying philosophy, politics, and economics, with a focus on globalization. She is the author of The Pivotal of the Public Sector: How Gen Z Will Lead a Civil Service Renaissance, available here.


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