There were two sour notes amid all the apparent good news in the national research that I reported in my last post. Washington’s Partnership for Public Service, which mounted the survey, found an unnervingly unrealistic element among all undergraduate respondents. On average the students anticipated a starting salary that approached $50,000. The Partnership’s survey also exposed a comparative lack of enthusiasm for public service when it polled undergraduates studying engineering and information technology.
It’s an open question whether this widespread salary expectation—as much as five figures higher than the norm for Federal starting pay—is a real deal-breaker, or merely a naïve misconception. In the first place, the employment picture for new grads in the private sector is pretty dismal; so competitive forces make government positions comparatively attractive, even if starting salaries fall short of expectations.
At the same time, the “lifestyle” advantages of Federal employment—from relative job security to work-life balance—can tip the balance for many candidates. It’s all in how you present the employment value proposition for your agency. For the candidate motivated by other than a financial agenda, the gap in anticipated vs. real salaries may not be an insurmountable barrier if you tell your tale authentically.
The other sour note is much more disconcerting. All agencies need technologists, and particularly IT specialists. It’s difficult to imagine a single cluster of expertise that’s more critical to the government than tech talent. They’re mission-critical skills essential not just to the nation’s defense and intelligence missions, but also to the efficient operation of every agency in the federal establishment.
With the exception of NASA, the perception that government technology offers less interesting challenges appears to be widespread. I don’t have the magic bullet that will dispel these attitudes, but part of the answer may be embedded in your agency’s technical “lore” and the cognitive habits of the people you need to engage.
Think about framing your most interesting tech operations and responsibilities as narrative case studies highlighting real-world challenges and the activities of your own high-performing technologists. Use all available outreach resources–from print and online to events and ads–to tell your story concretely, featuring real people. Engineering and IT students tend to be grounded in practical, here-and-now realms. Show them role models in authentic, interesting, problem-solving environments. If you do this creatively, you should engage their initial interest.
Following up is more complex. It goes a long way if you can offer high-prestige internships and/or put your own agency technologists into relationships with promising candidates through email or even as avatars in virtual worlds. And once techies are on the job, high-responsibility assignments and proactive mentoring are valuable tools in keeping them onboard when higher salaries beckon from the private sector.
Responding to either of the survey’s big “downer” revelations won’t be easy, but the stakes are pretty high if you don’t.