Recent Grads Often Don’t Consider Federal Employment, Survey Says

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Many federal agencies continue to face critical workforce gaps in areas like cybersecurity, IT and automation.

Already facing a staffing crisis, the federal government is also struggling to attract recent graduates to fill job openings, according to a Qualtrics study

Specifically, a slow recruiting process, unawareness of openings and outdated or nonessential requirements in job postings are limiting applications in light of the staffing crisis. On top of that, according to the survey, only 44% of recent graduates said they would consider working for the federal government. 

For the inaugural study, conducted in April 2022, Qualtrics surveyed more than 1,100 students and recent graduates in post-secondary education programs and certificate programs.

Dr. Sydney Heimbrock, chief industry advisor for government at Qualtrics, noted that now was the right time to conduct the survey.

“I felt it was particularly important to do now in light of the extreme pressure that is on our own government to continue helping the country recover from COVID-19 and address the unexpected and emerging challenges that we see happening every day,” Heimbrock told Nextgov. “And at the same time, we are really in a talent crisis. I felt it was really important for us to help governments, government agencies understand who they need to recruit, understand them beyond the numbers and dig a little deeper into who these people are as human beings, and how best to tap into their spirit of service and excitement and energy and bring them into public service.”

While the study does not discuss particular types of jobs in the government that are struggling to fill openings, the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office have identified critical skills gaps across the government. Cyber is typically towards the top of the list. Moreover, back in 2017, the government was struggling to hire young tech talent for open roles. 

The study showed several key findings for why the government is having difficulties filling positions, such as a lack of awareness of government job postings and feeling unqualified for the position.

For example, 20% of recent graduates who said they would not consider federal employment stated that they were unaware there were federal jobs available to apply to. Meanwhile, 35% did not consider it because of years of experience, and 25% did not consider it because of the required skills.

“A lot of the problem is simply awareness,” Heimbrock said. “It’s pretty typical for [institutions] to have job fairs for students in the graduating class. You often don't see government agencies at those job fairs. And that's where people get their information, that and online, and unless you have a really progressive recruitment strategist, working to get postings [to] places that people go to look for jobs, they just don't see them.” 

The second problem, according to Heimbrock, is cultivating interest. 

“If you put side by side the job announcement of a commercial service against a public service organization, it's night and day. The commercial service firm is using language, graphics trying to generate a sense of excitement and connection. The public service job announcement usually is very dry, written with regulatory language, written in non-plain English [it’s] just very difficult to understand,” she said. “And so one of the key findings that I think has taken a lot of people by surprise is that students and recent grads actually don't apply because they don't think they're qualified. And it's not because they aren't qualified, it’s because of the wording in the job announcement.”

Heimbrock suggested that government job openings should focus on skills instead of degrees to attract recent graduates and other qualified individuals to apply to these jobs.  

The survey highlighted people’s desires for flexible working environments, including remote or hybrid work. Additionally, the survey noted that graduates are looking for a work-life balance. 

Federal employment consideration varied by education level and demographics. For example, according to the study, minority graduates are less likely to consider government jobs. Specifically, 49% of white graduates said they would consider government jobs, compared with 42% of Black or African American graduates, 43% of Hispanic or Latinx graduates and 30% of Asian graduates saying they would consider a government job. One of the barriers to applying for these jobs was not feeling qualified for the position; this feeling was greatest among Hispanic or Latinx graduates. 

“Part of the reason is they don't recognize themselves in the leadership of those organizations, they’re not coming to recruitment activities, they’re not showing up in the news,” Heimbrock said.

Meanwhile, typically, as the level of education increased, graduates increasingly considered federal government employment. Specifically, 19% of certificate program recipients considered government employment, compared to 31% of bachelor’s degree recipients and 40% of graduate degree recipients.

Heimbrock also identified lessons that the government can learn from the private sector.

“How people experience an organization is absolutely critical for whether you're going to convince them to work for you,” she added. “What is my experience in the recruitment process? Does the mission appeal to me? Do I even understand what the mission is? Do I get to talk to and interact with people who look and feel like members of my community? … How do they treat me during the hiring process? Do they act like they want me? Or do they create all these different hurdles that show me not that they want the very best, but that they haven't paid attention to the hiring experience, right? So we've seen commercial firms all over the world adopt employee experience management, starting with recruitment, branding, going to the candidate experience, then to the hiring experience and all of that is about listening to what people are experiencing versus what they expect to experience, what they want to experience and closing those experience gaps.”