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Fewer graduates are choosing government jobs

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As new college graduates collect their degrees and launch careers this month, a surprising number of those receiving master’s degrees in public policy are no longer pursuing government jobs – especially at the federal level.

Shutdowns, pay uncertainty and government bashing are among the reasons these graduates give for avoiding such careers.

Between 2001 and 2017, the number of these graduates going into government jobs at all levels — local, state and federal — dropped 15 percent. Of those who did choose government jobs the average percentage entering the federal government dropped from nearly 75 percent in 2001 to about 25 percent in 2017. There was a spike in choosing government work following 9/11 and the first election of Barack Obama, but the general trend points downward over this 16-year period. 

{mosads}These findings are based on an examination of data on initial job choices of master of public policy graduates from the top 20 programs as ranked by U.S. News & World Report in 2018 and as reported by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration.  

The data did have some limitations — for instance, not all the schools report their data for the same time periods, but something clearly is going on when it comes to public service job choices. 

Why the decline? It’s not for a waning desire to work for the public good. Students of public policy score high on indicators of motivation for public service, so you would expect them to naturally lean toward jobs in government. 

And yet, something holds them back. I see this reluctance first-hand here at Duke University, where I teach courses in public policy.

My research assistant Kyle Melatti and I recently examined more than 100 self-written biographical sketches from our incoming master of public policy students. Each of these sketches contained at least one of the common attributes of public service motivation: compassion, commitment to social justice, an attraction to policy making, civic duty, self-sacrifice, commitment to the public interest.

Many of these students had already demonstrated an inclination toward service, coming to graduate school from the military, Peace Corps, Teach for America and numerous community nonprofit organizations.

In my professional ethics class, students keep journals, which I read weekly, and many are not shy about asserting a personal moral imperative for making the world a better place. They seek intrinsic rewards and look askance at the perceived material aspirations of their peers in business schools.

But in their job choices, many graduates of master of public policy programs no longer equate “public service” with “government service.”  Instead, they are choosing from a diverse set of job opportunities to satisfy the urge to serve their fellow citizens.

In 2017, 34 percent of these graduates went into government; 34 percent joined private sector organizations, including public-serving private organizations like government consulting firms; 28 percent opted for nonprofit organizations; and 4 percent chose other types of employment or further schooling.

These findings, which only go through 2017, have important implications for government. If governments are to compete for talent in the public service marketplace, the attractiveness of the work — and barriers to getting the jobs — must be addressed.

For starters, governments must demonstrate the public service attributes of their work and deal with the perceptions of governments as mind-numbing bureaucracies. 

Governments, particularly the federal government, need to streamline their complicated application procedures. Long lead times for selections and clearances plus uncertain and non-transparent hiring processes all conspire to make government an unattractive job choice. 

Lastly, we need to address in a serious way the increasing dysfunction in Washington, D.C. After all, who wants to work for an organization that is consistently bad-mouthed? As the numbers indicate, even those students most interested in government careers are reluctant these days to do so.

Douglas A. Brook, Ph.D., is visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He served as acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the George H.W. Bush administration.

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