Look Ma, I’m A Bureaucrat: Attracting the Millennial Generation into Government

November 9, 2001
Miranda Daniloff

Calling it a “silent crisis,” a panel of students, academics, a senator and a businessman discussed the looming human capital crisis in the federal government in the ARCO Forum at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics Thursday night. The panel was the first event of a two-day Executive Session devoted to the problems of the public sector workforce in the 21st century.

“We’ll always need a government,” said Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. “But it may be not as good as we need.” Nye said not enough talented young people choose government service thus fueling an impending vacuum due to anticipated mass retirements of federal workers. “In the 1980’s three quarters of the MPP (Master of Public Policy) class went into government. In the 1990’s only a third did,” said Nye. He added that while the public sentiment following the terrorist attacks is encouraging, the crisis is not solved by September 11th.

Businessman Sam Heyman, who founded the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service dedicated to revitalizing government through public-private partnerships, said he hoped to mobilize “a national call to government service.” Heyman who has donated $25 million to launch the Partnership said he is fully confident that it will succeed. He quipped, “I have not made a bad investment in my business career.”

Senator George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said part of the challenge was to educate his colleagues on the issues. Having recently filed legislation to give agencies greater flexibility in hiring, Voinovich commented that being quick to privatize government services doesn't always give federal employees a chance to find solutions. As governor of Ohio, he said, he worked successfully with the garbage collectors’ unions to streamline operations.

The discussion titled, ‘Look Ma, I’m a Bureaucrat! Attracting the Millennial Generation into Government,’ also featured three students. Chris DiMase, a joint Kennedy School and Law School student, noted that personal fulfillment at the end of the day was a key motivating factor for going into the public sector but that the private sector draws students because they need to pay down their school debt. He also noted that more law students are now looking at public sector careers, due in part to the current economic downturn.

Kennedy School Professor Carol Chetkovich echoed many of the students observations saying her studies have shown that graduating students view the private sector, not the public sector, as the place where they can grow professionally.

The Executive Session format is bringing together key actors from government, academia, and business to explore the dimensions of the problem and possible short- and long-term solutions. The session is the first of four planned meetings that organizers envision will lead to creative solutions that can help address the human capital crisis.

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