The Public Manager and the American Society for Public Administration
hosted their first annual conference on government
transformation in Baltimore, Maryland, July 2829, 2008. The
conference theme was Transforming Bureaucratic Cultures: Challenges and
Solutions for Public Management Practitioners. Members of the panel, New
Demographics and Recruiting and Retaining Young Professionals, discussed
strategies for recruiting and retaining college graduates in the
federal service and highlighted the parallel crises federal agencies are
facing: an imminent mass exodus of 3550 percent of employees eligible
for retirement and the inability of agencies to attract college graduates
to federal employment. Myriad topics were discussed in addressing
these parallel issues, all underscoring the need for agencies to take immediate
actions to attract and retain a new generation of talent.
Federal agencies are finding it difficult to attract and retain college
graduates for two primary reasons. First, young people today are less attracted
to federal employment than the generations before them. They
feel private-sector positions offer more challenges and greater extrinsic
and intrinsic rewards than federal service. Second, and most important,
federal agencies are faced with obstacles inherent to the civil service
system, including salary caps, slow hiring processes, and unique rules
and regulations that deter some applicants from applying for federal
positions and greatly frustrate others once they do apply.
Strategic Human Capital
Agencies can overcome these obstacles by developing
a strategic human capital management plan that
describes tailored recruitment and retention strategies.
The plan should outline executable actionstactical (in
14 years) and strategic (in 510 years)and contingency
strategies, resource requirements (personnel and
financial), and risks. The plan should be developed after
an agency self-assessment to obtain answers to the following
three questions: Where are we now? Where are
we going? How will we get there?
It should outline the agencys current situation in
terms of employee levels by department and job series
compared with expected personnel requirements over
each of the next ten years. It should also include a situ-
ational analysis of personnel requirements compared
with the agencys partners (customers, suppliers, and
other agencies), competition (private and public), technology,
current labor market, economy, and regulatory
environment. The How will we get there? question
is answered by developing clear goals and objectives
and outlining them along a structured path to achievement.
This includes an outline of the agencys target
population for improving, replacing, and increasing
Table 1 shows the sections of the strategic human capital
management plan, which should be detailed enough
to answer the associated questions. The sections are interconnected
and result from a top-down development.
Developing and executing the strategic plan require
various actions, which are not the sole responsibility
of the human resources department. All parts of
the organization, including operations, finance, human
resources, and systems, should participate. A dedicated
team should draft the plan, which should be given to
each component of the agency for comment, endorsed
by upper management, and finally signed by the head of
the agency. The human capital plan should be integrated
as a key component of the agencys overall strategic plan
and published for agency-wide distribution.
The human resources specialists who help execute
the plan should be certified professionals and receive
continual training. Managers and supervisors must be
thoroughly trained on the plan and in strategies to ensure
its effective implementation, including personnel planning,
human resources management, communication,
feedback, and managing diversity. Each departments
annual goals and performance plans should include human
resources improvement strategies as a subset of the
organizations human capital plan.
To implement the plan, the organizations structure,
policies, processes, and programs may have to change.
The plan may also need to be periodically amended to
adapt to changes that impact the strategic posture of the
agency, but not dynamic temporary changes. The plan
should be evaluated annually to ensure it remains viable
and current in relation to the strategic internal and external
needs of the agency.
Recruitment and Retention Strategies
The strategic human capital management plan
has two key components: recruitment and retention
strategies, which are not mutually exclusive. An effective
recruitment plan must incorporate plans to retain
employees once hired. For example, a scientific agency
recruiting students from a research institution must ensure
the students training and skills are congruent to the
duties required of the positions they are filling to ensure
they are retained. This is the basis of job-fit theory:
jobs and organizations that possess characteristics that
are congruent with individual characteristics produce a
fit that both attracts employees and motivates them to
remain. Strategies agencies can implement to attract and
retain a new generation of talent follow.
Due to financial constraints and, to a lesser degree,
poor planning, agencies often wait until positions have
been vacated before filling them. Proactive recruitment
determines potential vacancies due to planned retirements,
potential promotions, and anticipated increases
in personnel levels due to mission changes. New employees
are then hired to form a pool of new talent to
be trained by seasoned employees. When financial resources
do not permit maintaining a pool of workers,
agencies should still maintain a catalog of applications
and refresh it at least semiannually so the agency is in
position to quickly fill vacancies.
The application process for federal jobs is extremely
complex, especially for college students, who only have
to submit a resume for private-sector jobs. Many documents
must be submitted, and the process is complicated
by differing agency application systems and processes.
Applicants also find it difficult to check the status of their
applications once submitted. Human resources specialists
review applications for completeness and compare them
with vacancy requirements. They rank the applicants
and pass the applications to the hiring official filling a
vacancy. Applicants may have a contact number for the
human resources specialist, but not the hiring official.
An applicant may not receive any status information for
months, or they may not be contacted at all.
To streamline their hiring process, agencies should
require as few documents as possible, preferably only a
resum. Applicants should be able to track their applications
from the date of submission until a selection is
made and receive justification if not selected. Supporting
documentation such as official transcripts and proof of
residency should be conditional documents required of
the applicant once selected. Reform trends involve the
decentralization of classification plans through broadbanding,
which consists of salary grades consolidated
into fewer and broader pay ranges. This process, under
the National Security Personnel System, eliminates the
duplication of pay levels across grades. This has made
grade and pay systems more entrepreneurial, flexible,
and responsive to employees in term of a clearer career
entry point and promotion track.
Special Recruiting Programs
Agencies can utilize many programs to attract top
college students, including the Cooperative Education
Program, the Outstanding Scholar Program, Federal
Career Intern Program, and the Presidential Management
Fellowship program. These programs feature
streamlined hiring processes, work experience for potential
employees before college graduation, and faster
promotion potential for new federal employees.
The Cooperative Education Program allows students
enrolled in two- or four-year college programs
to work for federal agencies while enrolled in college.
Through a formal agreement between an agency and a
college, the work experience is treated as part of the students
overall educational program. Upon completion of
all college requirements for graduation, a student may be
converted to a competitive service appointment in the
agency, without competition, on the basis of an assessment
of their job performance while in the program.
The Outstanding Scholar Program allows agencies
to employ streamlined hiring processes and offer higher
salaries to college students graduating with a grade
point average of at least 3.5 (on a 4.0 scale) or in the
top 10 percent of their university or department. These
students are also hired into positions that provide them
faster promotions opportunities.
The Federal Career Intern Program allows agencies
to place college students in two-year internships that
may lead to permanent placement in the agency after
graduation. Created under Executive Order 13162 in
2000, the program covers positions at the trainee level
(generally grades GS-5, -7, and -9). For a list of internships
all agencies can use to hire college students, see
The Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF)
and similar programs give college graduates an opportunity
to apply the knowledge acquired from their graduate
education. It allows agencies to train students in
public policy and administration, domestic or international
issues, information technology, human resources,
engineering, health and medical sciences, law, financial
management, and many other fields in support of public-
service programs. Since 1977, these programs have
attracted outstanding graduate, law, and doctoral-level
students and led many students to rewarding federal careers.
However, these programs are relatively unknown
to those not associated with the federal government.
Agencies must establish and maintain a visible presence
on college campuses, particularly in the departments
they target for potential employees. For example,
agencies seeking acquisition specialists should build coalitions
with university business departments and make
frequent visits to meet with students. These relationships
should be fortified by a sponsor from the agency and
from the partnering university. In addition to making
visits for recruitment purposes, agencies should give
seminars, sponsor student visits to the agency, and offer
training programs to instill student interest in federal
employment as early as their freshman year. These coalitions
should be built with universities offering undergraduate,
graduate, and professional programs.
Coalitions with High Schools
Instilling the desire for federal employment in young
people should begin early. Because a strategic plan is
based on meeting goals as far out as ten years, agencies
should also build coalitions with high schools. As with
college students, agency personnel should hold seminars,
sponsor agency visits, and offer training and tutoring
programs. Over the last two generations, Americans
trust in the federal government has declined. To reverse
this trend, government must make a concerted effort
to reconstruct civic virtue. Cultivating the attitudes of
young people toward government should rekindle interest
in civic engagement and employment in the federal
government. Civic education must be emphasized
in K12 school curriculums, particularly in high school,
for students to understand the importance of government
and its political institutions and processes.
Incentives for Top Graduates
Private companies provide several types of incentives
to attract new employees. These include signing
bonuses, payment of relocation expenses, and student
loan repayment programs. Federal agencies offer some
of these incentives, but not with the flexibility of private
companies. Agencies are hampered by regulations, they
face greater financial restraints than private firms, and
many of these incentives are at the discretion of individual
departments or hiring officials. For example, the
federal student loan repayment program permits agencies
to repay federally insured student loans as a recruitment
or retention incentive for candidates or current
employees. An employee receiving this benefit must sign
a service agreement to remain in the service of the paying
agency for at least three years. According to the U.S.
Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in fiscal year
2007, thirty-three federal agencies provided more than
6,600 employees with a total of more than $42 million
in student loan repayment benefitsan average benefit
of more than $6,000 per employee.
New Job Fit
When new employees are recruited for and hired
into positions that match their skills, experiences, and
interests, retention improves. The retention rate of college
graduates in federal service five years after employment
in the 1990s was lower than that for college graduates
across all industries. However, agencies with more
positions that require knowledge-based skills (those
possessing a greater percentage of white-collar professional
occupations that require college degrees) retained
top college graduates better than agencies with fewer
positions that were knowledge based.
As the population of minorities increases over the
coming decades (particularly the Hispanic population),
agencies must aggressively recruit minority employees
to ensure they sustain their personnel levels with an employee
pool that represents the nations demographics.
Many agencies have a representative population of minorities
in lower-level positions, but few minorities in
top-level positions (particularly at the Senior Executive
Service level). They need to partner with historically
black colleges and universities to recruit more minorities.
These institutions, numbering more than one hundred,
are ready resources for federal agencies wanting to
recruit top-notch individuals for their agencies. Along
with forming an alliance with historically black colleges,
agencies should also contact career service offices at predominantly
white universities to seek African-American,
Hispanic, Asian, and female students. All universities
have career services on their campuses, and most are
anxious to connect students with potential employers.
Agency representatives can also build relationships with
professors who teach in public administration and political
science programs to identify high-achieving minority
students enrolled in their courses.
The federal hiring process has been the benchmark
by which private organizations have developed
their merit systems of recruitment. However, some federal
agencies are compromising this system of merit by
streamlining their hiring processes to the extreme by not
interviewing all qualified applicants or not providing
documented justification to employees not selected for
positions. This has resulted in some current employees
not applying for promotions and prospective employees
not applying for positions with certain agencies.
Agencies must ensure fairness and merit are part
of their hiring processes, including documenting the
results of application reviews and interviews. All applicants
who have applied for positions should have
prompt access to documentation pertaining to their application.
Additional documentation should be provided
to applicants who should have been given special hiring
consideration, such as those who are mentally or
physically challenged and those from underrepresented
groups (such as minorities or women applying for jobs
where they are poorly represented).
Members of Generation X (born between1961
and 1980) and Generation Y (born after 1980) share
common attributes. Academically, these generations are
smarter than any before due to their constant exposure
to technological breakthroughs. Socially, they are individualistic
and do not trust formal institutions due to
their having to fend for themselves while their parents
worked long hours, divorced in record numbers, or never
married but still had children. They are racially diverse,
politically liberal, and pessimistic about the future. They
are risk takers, embrace change, desire the freedom to
express themselves, and are very good communicators.
These traits guide the way they approach and behave in
social and professional environments, as well as the types
of jobs and organizations to which they are attracted. An
agencys ability to satisfy their needs relies on the personality
attributes and attitudes of its people, the specific
characteristics of its jobs, and its culture.
Generation theory holds that Generations X and
Y desire interesting jobs with meaningful content, seek
a balance between their professional and personal lives,
are mobile, believe education is a lifelong process, desire
job independence, are technologically savvy, desire jobs
with good benefits, and desire feedback and a chance to
learn new things. Job-fit theory holds that meeting all
these needs will result in increased recruitment, job satisfaction,
lower turnover, longer tenure, organizational
commitment, and better job performance.
Federal agencies do a poor job of capitalizing on
their occupational benefits because they lack structured
advertising and recruitment programs. Beyond competitive
pay and job security, agencies offer flexible work
schedules, telework, exceptional and flexible benefit
packages, tuition reimbursement programs, student loan
repayment, national and international opportunities for
travel, and a host of other benefits. However, agencies
should do a better job of educating potential employees
on what they offer.
Federal agencies should follow the examples of the
military services and private sector in advertising to become
more competitive in attracting young workers.
They must utilize new and innovative marketing strategies.
Federal agencies can create attractive commercials
and public-service announcements to air on MTV, VH1,
TV1, BET, and other television stations that appeal to
young people and minorities. Moreover, agencies can use
social networking sites such as MySpace, FaceBook, and
BlackPlanet to recruit potential young federal employees.
Alternative Hiring Programs
Qualified applicants can be found in other groups
besides college graduates. The many sources of eligible
candidates include military service veterans, spouses of
military service men and women, private-sector employees
seeking career changes, and applicants who do
not have college degrees who can be hired with the
requirement that they complete a minimum level of
college education or obtain degrees within a specified
period after employment.
Although higher-paying positions attract employees,
top college graduates also seek positions that are
both challenging and congruent with their backgrounds
(degree field). When agencies hire employees into positions
outside of their educational fields, retention is less
likely. This may greatly hamper employees future promotion
aspirations, particularly when jobs they compete
for have educational stipulations (such as procurement
positions that require a minimum of twenty-four hours
of coursework in business-related classes).
Generation and job-fit theories indicate that sectors
of employees share similar values and interests, and their
hiring agencies must satisfy these needs to retain them.
Members of Generations X and Y desire meaningful job
content, seek a balance between their professional and
personal lives, desire job independence, good benefits,
feedback, and a chance to learn new things. When these
needs are met, recruitment increases and turnover decreases.
For example, occupational mobility, continuous
opportunity for educational advancement, good benefits,
and feedback result in increased job satisfaction,
lower turnover, and longer tenure.
Rotation Programs and Cross-Training
Rotations allow employees to learn about different
facets of the organization by spending time in positions
in different departments. They are then exposed to various
challenges (which build their interest) and are able
to better understand the mission and function of the entire
organization. Rotation programs increase employee
commitment to the organization and therefore lead to
increased retention. Cross-training can be used in virtually
all federal agencies to increase job enrichment. New
skills make employees more valuable through greater
knowledge, responsiveness, and efficiency. Learning new
job skills also stimulates employees and reduces their
potential for boredom or complacency. Some employees
are unsuitable for this training, including those more
comfortable in familiar routines and those in critical or
sensitive positions that do not allow cross-training.
Fast-Track Promotion Programs
The time it takes for career advancement has historically
been a negative aspect of federal employment.
Most positions have at least a one-year wait before competition
for a promotion, and as the employee advances
in a career path, the requirements for promotion opportunities
increase. Agencies should develop structured
methods for exceptional employees to take advantage of
faster tracks for career advancement. Otherwise, these
employees may quickly feel stagnant in their positions
and grow tired of the slow pace of their career advancement.
They will then seek opportunities in other agencies
or outside of the federal government.
Mentor programs offer new employees the opportunity
to work with experts in their fields. These programs
help new employees to quickly adjust to their new
jobs, build professional relationships between new and
current employees, and give new employees the ability
to obtain real-life and hands-on experience that cannot
be gained from traditional training. They also catalyze
retention because mentored employees feel a sense of
pride and organizational commitment by being chosen
to participate. Empirical research shows that mentoring
programs are successful, and they are important in career
success and retention.
Public administrators must manage a diverse workforce
with varied cultural backgrounds, interests, and
experiences. The same supervisory approach cannot be
applied to all of these employees. Effective managers
recognize the uniqueness of each person and capitalize
on the individuals ability to express unique viewpoints
and inputs to problems. Employees also carry problems
from work into their personal lives and bring personal
problems into their professional lives. Although employees
are expected to maintain a degree of professionalism
at all times, supervisors cannot ignore the effects of employees
personal lives at work. They must manage the
whole person. Rather than just punishing an employee
who suddenly becomes nonproductive, a supervisor
should first attempt to determine whether a personal
issue is causing problems at work. In most instances, this
will lead to an appreciative employee who is more dedicated
to the organization.
After recruiting employees from diverse programs,
agencies must be able to effectively manage them. This
requires supervisory sensitivity and appreciation of employees
from differing cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
Often, supervisory and management training is required
to ensure leaders are able to understand and respond to
the needs of a diverse employee population. Managing
diversity is also part of managing the whole person.
Tuition reimbursement programs are not only an
excellent recruiting program, but also one that leads to
higher retention levels. Employees obtain advanced degrees,
and agencies benefit from employees with greater
skills to contribute to the mission of the organization.
These programs are often offered with the stipulation
that employees remain in the employment of their
agency for some specified period (for example, up to
three years after completing their degrees).
Performance incentives are the key component to
performance-based employee management, in which
employees are evaluated and rewarded on the basis of
results-oriented goals and objectives established by the
supervisor and employee. By achieving threshold levels
of performance, employees are given such incentives
as monetary awards, time off, participation in rotation
programs, or special training opportunities. Incentives
should be provided for individual and team achievements.
All of these are motivational incentives that enhance
Once employees retire from an agency, they are able
to continue contributing to that agencys growth and employee
development through programs that allow them
to share their experiences and expertise with current
employees. This is accomplished through agency alumni
programs where retired employees can act as mentors to
new employees or interact with them through agencysponsored
social activities. For example, agencies can host
employee alumni days where retired employees meet
with new employees in the workplace. Some retired employees
would be willing to participate at no cost because
of the intrinsic reward of continuing to contribute to the
mission of the agency, shaping the future leaders of the
government, and serving their country.
The use of flexible work arrangements contributes
significantly to employee retention. Telework allows employees
to work from home or other locations outside
of the traditional work environment. Alternate work
schedules allow employees to work fewer workdays by
working longer hours during the days they are scheduled
to work. For example, employees may work only
four days a week by working a compressed schedule of
four ten-hour days. Flexible hours allow employees to
report to work between core work hours. For example,
employees are permitted to report to work at anytime
from 6:00 am to 10:00 am, but are still required to work
an eight-hour day. Other flexible work programs include
part-time jobs and job-sharing.
Considerations for Implementing
Recruitment and Retention Programs
Agencies and managers must carefully plan the
implementation of recruitment and retention programs,
considering such factors as the mission of the organization
and program costs. The following subsections discuss
some factors that must be evaluated.
Accomplishing the mission of the organization is
the paramount consideration in implementing any recruitment
or retention program. Each program must
contribute to sustaining the organization and its ability
to meet its statutory mandate. For example, tuition
reimbursement should only be granted to employees
when the classes they are attending or degree they are
obtaining directly relates to the duties required of their
position. It should also be commensurate with the level
of responsibility and authority of that position. An employee
with clerical duties wouldnt require a PhD in
executive leadership. An acquisition specialist wouldnt
require a class in advanced physics.
Agencies should ensure recruitment and retention
programs do not violate laws and regulations. For example,
the hiring process should not be eased to the point
of hiring employees who are not legal citizens or those
with criminal backgrounds that make them unsuitable
for sensitive positions impacting national security.
Criticality of Positions
All potential or current positions do not qualify for
certain types of employee retention programs. Policemen
and firemen may not telework. Employees may not
take top-secret information home during telework, and
agencies must ensure employees accessing government
systems are doing so through secure networks.
Managers and supervisors should be flexible in using
retention programs, but must ensure the duties of
their offices are being accomplished. For example, employees
should be allowed to take advantage of flexible
work schedules, but some supervisors may not be able to
allow every employee to do so because it would result in
a majority of their employees being off on Fridays. This
is particularly the case when customers require direct
contact with employees.
Benefits and Costs
Agencies must weigh the benefits and costs of programs.
For example, allowing an employee to attend a
graduate program costing $40,000 a year is not feasible
when another university offers a program of comparable
work-related value for $10,000.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)
has identified measures and risk indicators that can be
used to assess the effectiveness of an agencys human
capital strategy, specifically the success of its recruitment
and retention initiatives. In addition to reviewing internal
data, agencies may find it useful to benchmark their
human capital data against those of high-performing
public- and private-sector organizations with comparable
missions and circumstances.
Recruitment and retention programs require planning
and execution that benefits the agency in the long
term. They should be part of a strategic human capital
management plan designed to sustain or improve the
agencys ability to fulfill its mission and enhance customer
support. The benefits of these programs are almost
immeasurable. In light of the impending exodus of
almost half of the federal governments workforce due
to retirement, agencies must take steps to ensure they
can attract and retain qualified workers. This is perhaps
the most urgent task and greatest obstacle federal agencies
are facing. The recruitment and retention programs
discussed in this article, in conjunction with a strategic
human capital plan, will allow agencies to meet this
challenge and ensure the future ability of the federal
government to serve the needs of the United States.