As a government and politics major at the University of Maryland, Joe Chapman knew he might end up working for the federal government.
"It was not always at the top of my list for a career, but it was among the places that I knew I was going to shoot for," the Bowie man said.
Chapman said plenty of students at the university, on the edge of the nation's capital and a Metro ride away from many of its federal agencies, felt the same way.
But now, as a 26-year-old program analyst for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Chapman said he is "one of a very few 20-somethings" in his office.
"We're top-heavy, agewise," Chapman said.
His experience is not uncommon, according to many who study or work in federal recruitment.
"The good news is that there is a talent market of young folks coming out of universities who are interested in government," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.
The bad news, Stier said, is that the millennials aren't landing jobs.
Stier's organization, which promotes careers in federal government, published a report this month titled "College Students are Attracted to Federal Service, but Agencies Need to Capitalize on Their Interest."
The partnership found that millennials are underrepresented in the federal workforce and laid the blame in part on recruitment failings.
The partnership uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that employees younger than 30 represent 23.2 percent of the total U.S. workforce but only 8.5 percent of the federal workforce.
It also cites a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which found that the percentage of college students planning to enter a local, state or federal government job declined for the fifth consecutive year, from 10.2 percent in 2009 to 5.4 percent in 2013. Just 2 percent of students planned to enter the federal workforce in 2013, the association found.
"Federal agencies need to address the lack of generational diversity in their workforce as a serious problem," the partnership concluded.
The federal government and many of its agencies have increased their outreach to young people.
The Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, after years of limited hiring, is using the government's Pathways Internship and Pathways Recent Graduate programs this year for the first time to fill positions across the agency, a spokeswoman said.
John Flato, a vice president at the employer branding firm Universum who advises companies on recruiting college students, said the hiring of young recruits varies by agency, but the federal government has generally done a poor job keeping up with the private sector.
He said federal agencies don't focus on the skills they need and the universities that specialize in them, allow red tape to slow their hiring process, don't brand themselves effectively, and place too much emphasis on experience and not enough on talent and potential.
While the federal government "has great appeal," Flato said, "it just hasn't been able to get its act together as quickly as the private sector."
A key failing, he said, is that federal agencies don't value their interns enough.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers, in its survey, found that federal agencies offer jobs to 19.5 percent of their interns. In the private sector, it's 27.3 percent.
Federal agencies, Flato said, "should be looking at interns in a much more strategic way."
David Rosenmarkle, a program manager who scouts for executive talent at the U.S. Department of Energy, agrees.
"There's I think too much emphasis placed on hiring people in at the higher levels who already have master's or doctorates or additional outside experience, as opposed to someone right out of graduate school," he said. "I get university students and I am always excited about the innovation and creativity that they bring to the environment."
Joan Burton says that is exactly what she is trying to get students at the University of Maryland to show.
Burton is director of the university's Federal Semester program, which offers students a semester of courses on leveraging workplace experience, then connects them with a semester-long internship in a federal agency, under people like Rosenmarkle.
The program, which started with grants seven years ago, was greeted enthusiastically by students, Burton said. Now it's funded by the university.
"The students that come to us are students that really have a strong sense of public service and a strong sense of giving back," Burton said. "They aren't driven primarily by financial gains."
Rachel DeCampo, a 21-year-old senior in the program, is interning at the State Department, where she said she is getting great experience, not just "filing papers."
DeCampo, an anthropology major from York, Pa., said the internship has enabled her to learn the ropes and see what full-time federal employees are achieving.
"They have the ability to use their job to feel like they are making a difference at home but also abroad," she said. "That's something I think I would value in a future career."
DeCampo expects the experience to be helpful this summer when she tries to land a job with the State Department, another federal agency or a local federal contractor.
Chapman, the HHS program analyst, also participated in the Federal Semester program. He interned at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and now works there full time.
He said the internship was invaluable to charting his path into a career.
"A lot of people in the U.S. don't fully understand how the government works," he said. "You've got an idea from maybe high school or a Government 101 class for how a bill becomes a law, and it's very dry.
"How the government really works is far messier. It doesn't work in a neat, processed way."
Chapman said he loves the work he does now: analyzing public health solutions to diseases such as influenza.
He said more young people should put in the effort to land federal jobs — even if getting through the door is difficult.
"You want this large organization to be quick and nimble and responsive, and there are times when it just doesn't feel like that," he said. "But ... if you stick with it, then it will reward you."
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