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The Government Shutdown Provides a Great Recruiting Opportunity

by
Dr. John Sullivan
Oct 11, 2013, 6:24 am ET

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 2.55.58 PMIt’s hard to miss the troubling news about the “government shutdown” and the “debt default crisis,” but what has not received a lot of press attention is that these negative events have unwittingly created a powerful recruiting opportunity for hiring away top government workers.

The idling of federal employees can be properly labeled as a recruiting opportunity because clearly the very best employees won’t stay idle for long. If the government won’t employ them right away, others will (especially Silicon Valley firms that have already begun recruiting efforts).

Furloughed government workers unfortunately have lots of free time, and no one should be surprised when they use that time to seek better opportunities with a more stable future. Recruiting away top talent when an organization is going through troubled times (which I call “right-time recruiting”) is actually a pretty common corporate practice. The name “right time” comes from the fact that the recruiting effort is scheduled during or immediately after a negative event that deeply frustrates normally loyal employees.

These “right-time-to-recruit” negative events can include layoffs, furloughs, mergers, plant closings, and even catastrophic weather events. Even technical federal employees who have not been furloughed have been frustrated by the series of seemingly endless federal budget cuts because federal scientists, engineers, Internet security, and technology professionals rely on funding increases in order to remain on the leading edge in their field.

Taken together, I estimate that the combination of idle time, budget cuts, and the high frustration levels as a result of feeling unappreciated means that as many as half of the government workers who would’ve given a hard “no” to a recruiting call previously will now at least consider saying “yes, let’s talk.” Recruiting leaders need to be apolitical and not be concerned about who is to blame for creating the shutdown-related problems. But there are currently hundreds of thousands of government workers who are suddenly interested in better career opportunities, and it is the corporate recruiter’s job to make them aware of the superior opportunities at their firm.

The Advantages of Recruiting Federal Workers

Instead of focusing on administrative employees, target technical staff who corporations have historically found can more easily adapt to the faster-moving corporate world. If your firm sells to, contracts with, or is closely regulated by the federal government, you already know that it employs a large number of highly qualified scientists, engineers, IT, and technical staff. In addition to their technical skills, these federal employees have many powerful contacts, a deep understanding of regulations, and experience working on leading-edge issues.

Another reason for targeting federal employees is their sheer numbers; there are literally millions of them, so you can cherrypick the very best and still easily fill most of your hiring needs. As an added benefit, many of them are geographically located close to your facilities, so relocation may not be necessary (only roughly 15 percent of federal workers work in the Washington area). If you are a university, state, or local government agency, recruiting these individuals may also result in improved intergovernmental relations and eventually it may lead to better federal funding. As a final benefit, you can be assured that there is no “anti-poaching agreement” between your firm and the federal government.

Now Is the Perfect Time to Recruit Them

Most federal workers are aware that the current high levels of turmoil, gridlock, and uncertainty are likely to continue for several years. You’re likely to find technical employees among the most receptive to corporate recruiting initiatives, because of these employees’ frustration over uncertain funding levels for their projects, limited or no training or equipment dollars, and regular hiring freezes, which taken together, make it difficult for those who want to remain on the leading-edge. At the same time, frustrated federal technical employees are also learning to accept the fact that the private sector is clearly becoming the place to work for innovation and stable project funding. Almost everyone now also realizes that if you want great benefits and job security, you no longer look to government jobs, but instead, you go to private sector firms like Google or Facebook. In addition, many high-tech firms and startups offer the opportunity for wealth through stock options, something that federal employees can only obtain by playing the Lotto.

The key is to strike today when furloughed employees have a lot of free time and when even non-furloughed federal employees are feeling deeply unappreciated.

How to Raid Federal Agencies for Their Top Talent

You need to start your recruiting effort with an aggressive strategy that allows you to successfully compete for the very best among this federal talent pool. Obviously the first recruiting step is to identify the very best federal workers to target. Your employee referral program is the best way to do that. Fortunately government transparency efforts have made it quite easy to identify federal workers in employee directories or on social media. So to start the target identification process, recruiting leaders should reach out to their well-connected employees to let them know that their firm’s referral program is now targeting the very best federal workers.

Recruiting leaders also need to identify employees who have recently worked for the federal government, for their contacts but also to gain their help in convincing government prospects to make the switch. Employees should be given a “recruiting toolkit” including sample social media profiles and blogs, as well as other tips that can guide them in identifying and building relationships with these federal recruiting targets. In addition, a “sell sheet” needs to be put together that outlines the many advantages of leaving the federal service and joining your corporation.

Next, recruiting should target former top-performing employees who left to work with the federal government, in order to perhaps convert them into “boomerangs.” The references of recent hires who work for the federal government should also be contacted and asked for additional names. Recruiting should also target award-winning federal employees, retired Federal employees, and even contract federal employees who are also likely to be extremely frustrated. Aggressive firms should also consider hiring a handful of key federal HR employees and recruiters from target agencies who may be able to give you a quick insight into who and how to target the very best.

If you are really bold, consider a “team lift out” where you recruit an entire intact team all at once. And finally, if you really want to get it right, put together an advisor group of your own employees who are former federal government workers to continually guide your recruiting and selling effort.

Final Thoughts

The best recruiting leaders see opportunities where others don’t, and then they act quickly before others can gear up for action. Instituting a “right-time” recruiting strategy that takes advantage of the current turmoil can clearly produce some amazing and immediate recruiting results, provided leadership has the courage to implement the strategy in time.

If you work in recruiting and you have second thoughts about raiding the federal workforce, seek out another profession. There is nothing in the Constitution or the law that provides any anti-raiding obligation and with as many as 4.5 million employees, your recruiting effort will hardly make a dent. As a recruiter, you owe it to your coworkers and shareholders to selfishly build the best talent pool at your firm by offering top talent the best employment opportunity that your firm can provide.

If for whatever reason the federal government (or any other organization) fails to treat its employees well, let the competitive market process send the message to government leaders that there is a significant long-term economic and service delivery price to be paid for degrading public service and unnecessarily frustrating federal employees. From that perspective, you might even consider yourself to be a “rescuer” rather than a recruiter.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Kathleen Smith

    John
    All interesting thoughts but there are some challenges with this. Most of the government employees who are highly desirable and have the skills, connections and clearances that employers are looking for have not been in job search for a very long time. Many recruiters rely recruiting tools that are less than 5 years old such as social media for sourcing rather than tools and techniques used even 10 years ago, let alone 15-20 years when most of these professionals were in a job search.

    If you do search for someone on Google, etc, and find professionals to reach out to, there will be some instant mistrust as most of these professionals do their best not to be found. If you are reaching out to them “out of the blue” without any context or connection, you may simply get a no answer, refusal or worse.

    Many government employees have gone through a security clearance process which is quite involved. If they moved to a private sector job that does not require a security clearance, the professionals will lose that clearance. If they ever wanted to return to security cleared work they would have to start the entire security clearance investigation process over again.

    Finally most are in government service to support the mission and those who work in government service know that there is a difference between an administration and public service. Just as many professionals in private industry sometimes get dissatisfied with their corporate boards, CEOs and management, public service professionals understand that their mission is still in need of support no matter what is going on in Congress.

  2. Keith Halperin

    @ Kathleen. Well-said. It’s also my impression that there might some interest in high-level bureaucrats in regulatory agencies (“the revolving door”), and possibly some technical people, but not sure who else. Also, there are some things that would be hard to match in the private sector: A friend of mine in IT just retired from the federal courts after 30 years of service (he was in his mid-50s) with a very generous pension.Who gets that in the private sector THESE days?

    Cheers,

    Keith

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