If You Really Want to Help Government Workers … Recruit Them Away

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Jan 11, 2019
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

It’s not an overstatement to label the current federal government partial shutdown as the most extraordinary opportunity to recruit government employees since the end of World War II! Firms in nearly every industry are faced with the painful tripartite combination of record low unemployment, record high employee turnover, and a prolonged “skills shortage” that are all restricting corporate growth. Fortunately, at the peak of this period when the demand for experienced talent far outweighs its supply, suddenly, literally hundreds of thousands of well-trained and normally loyal federal employees are now frustrated to the point where many are beginning to at least consider leaving federal service.

So, if you are a recruiter who follows the “turn lemons into lemonade approach, put aside any delaying concerns about the ethics of “raiding the federal government for talent.” Instead craft a plan to instantly help your firm by quickly cherry-picking the best federal talent before your competitors roll out their own federal employee recruiting effort. The remainder of this article explains why this current shutdown is such a powerful recruiting opportunity and some specific action steps as to how corporations and recruiters can take advantage of it.

You Haven’t Heard Much About the Poaching of Federal Employees Because of the Timing of This Shutdown

This shutdown is unique in that it occurred primarily during the holiday period. The lowest level of corporate recruiting occurs during the December holidays. As a result, you haven’t heard much of a buzz about corporations raiding federal government agencies for talent. However, with the new fiscal year starting January 1 and headcount budgets opening up, what has been a trickle I predict will soon become a tsunami. Once the word spreads, many more federal employees will be jarred into considering external opportunities. Organizations that quickly put together a federal employee poaching plan will have a competitive advantage over their slower-moving recruiting competitors.

The Top 10 Reasons Why This Government Shutdown Is the Best Opportunity for Corporate Recruiting

There are numerous reasons why this current shutdown recruiting opportunity may literally be the best recruiting opportunity within the last 75 years. The top 10 reasons why it is a superior recruiting opportunity are listed below, with the most impactful factors listed first.

  1. The fear created by this potentially endless shutdown is unprecedented — The primary reason that this shutdown is a better recruiting opportunity than those in the past is because of its likely length. During no previous shutdown has the presiding president ever stated that he wouldn’t mind it if the shutdown were to continue for a year or longer. And because historically it is now the longest shutdown, and with no end in sight, millions of government employees and contractors are now facing the untenable possibility of going without a paycheck for many months. This “no-end-in-sight” fear and uncertainty are causing unprecedented despair among federal workers, and these fears are increased by the real likelihood of missing multiple mortgage payments. In addition, because of the recent mortgage meltdown, now missing more than one payment might literally cause many to lose their homes. And there will also be family pressure from those who will go hungry and those who might have to drop out of school because of missed tuition payments. Taken together, these powerful fear factors may trigger a job search among all federally paid workers, and not just those who live paycheck to paycheck.
  2. The need for talent is higher than during any recent shutdown — Nearly 10 years of steady corporate growth and sky-high stock valuations means that there are a record number of open jobs. And with record low unemployment and declining college graduation numbers, the amount of available unemployed talent to meet these openings is minimal. So if you need large numbers of experienced workers, your primary choice today is to take them from another organization.
  3. A lessened opportunity for federal workers to actually make a difference — Many federal workers chose public service in order to make a difference. However, with steadily declining budgets and severe restrictions on regulations, many federal employees working in what I call “make a difference” agencies (like the EPA, CDC, HHS, HUD, and Education) may begin to view the next six years of being void of any real opportunity to make that difference. The perception of a lower impact will make many consider alternative jobs in state government, not-for-profits, and corporations as their only real opportunity to impact the environment, diversity, and their communities. At the same time, corporate jobs are now becoming more attractive to make-a-difference type employees because of recent pressure from shareholders and employees that has forced many corporations to become more socially responsive.
  4. It’s now easier to find that the rewards outside of government are higher and rising faster — Unlike previous shutdowns, it is now amazingly easy to determine the difference in pay between a federal job and a similar job in the corporate sector. Once federal workers use sites like and, they will quickly learn that they are often underpaid by a large percentage (for example the average hourly pay of the TSA agent is $19.31 per hour, while the minimum wage at the San Francisco airport is $17 an hour for profit-making firms). Federal workers of course already know that recent federal pay increases outside of the military have been minimal. And on the Internet they will quickly find that already higher corporate pay rates are now beginning to rise even higher. In the past many employees gravitated toward government work because of the job security. With several years of low unemployment, most workers are putting a lower priority on job security. And the smartest federal workers will realize that if they act quickly, they can begin building up their corporate seniority prior to the next economic downturn. Finally, many federal employees are realizing that they have little opportunity to build wealth, which is why they have little backup money when their federal paychecks stop. So, the current record stock market growth means that the equity that they receive with a corporate job may give them their only opportunity for wealth.
  5. The job-search process is now much easier, so there is less reluctance to apply — Since previous lengthy shutdowns, finding openings and applying for a new position have become so amazingly easy that during this shutdown federal workers will be less reluctant to actively apply. And with the now-reduced corporate hiring times, and no need for furloughed workers to give notice, federal workers will soon realize that they can obtain a new corporate job in as few as two weeks. With so many employees furloughed, and contract workers idled for so long, each of them now has an abundance of time available to plan a new career and to seek a new job.
  6. Large recruiting budgets mean that without any action, they will be contacted — Unlike in many previous shutdowns, corporate recruiting budgets are now large enough to support a great deal of direct sourcing and candidate relationship building. Federally paid workers are likely to be proactively contacted by one or more experienced corporate recruiters who excel at convincing even the most reluctant individuals to apply.
  7. The power of social media now increases pressure on them to leave –The spread of social media will likely result in an increase in suggestions from sympathetic friends and colleagues that they leave federal service. And with the growth of employer comment sites like Glassdoor and TeamBlind, it is now amazingly easy for them to learn about the problems in federal jobs and the contrasted amazing opportunities in the corporate world.
  8. Turnover will be higher because the government isn’t undertaking any significant retention efforts — because many federal employees are extremely loyal, it normally doesn’t take much of a retention effort to persuade them to stay. Unfortunately, there is no public evidence that the Office of Personnel Management or individual federal agencies are taking any proactive actions in order to retain their best talent. Obviously, without being encouraged to stay, it will be much easier for corporate recruiters to convince them to consider leaving.
  9. Startup and innovation opportunities are now much more abundant — Currently, the number of well-funded startups is at an all-time high. So smart federal workers who have always dreamed about the opportunity to work at a startup should realize that now is the opportune time to take that plunge. And by now every federal employee already knows that if they want an optimal opportunity to truly innovate, their chances are much higher if they work at much better-funded serial innovators like Amazon, Apple, Uber, Airbnb, Genentech, and Google.
  10. This time, the need to relocate may be a smaller issue — Extremely low mortgage interest rates and fat corporate relocation budgets now make it easier for federal employees to relocate to a corporate job in another region. The threat of increasing mortgage interest rates will likely force some federal employees to jump ship even faster. If a targeted federal worker isn’t interested in relocating, the expanded availability of remote work opportunities at corporations may mean that a new hire won’t need to relocate because they can work at home.

Taken together, the above listed factors make this  the right time for external recruiters to proactively identify, poach, and cherry-pick top talent from those now working with the federal government.

The Number of Potential Recruits Is Much Higher Than You Might Initially Think

Yes, press reports are accurate when they reveal that approximately 800,000 federal workers are directly affected by this partial shutdown. By any standards that is a hell of a recruiting pool. The actual number of potentially interested federal talent may be in the millions because the combination of the steady flow of degrading comments about the federal workforce and the recent political shenanigans and bottlenecks in Washington, D.C. are together causing many of the remaining over one million federal civilian workers and the approximately 3.7 million contract workers to be more open to non-governmental job opportunities. Not since the end of World War II when millions of GIs returned to the civilian workforce has there been such an influx of suddenly available and interested talent for corporations to recruit. Among the six government shutdowns since 1990, for a number of reasons this current one provides the best recruiting opportunity by far.

How to Effectively Raid Federal Agencies for Their Top Talent

Some proven basic approaches that will get you started:

  • Start by growing a pair — In my experience, the biggest roadblock that will prevent corporate recruiting leaders from successfully recruiting federal workers is a lack of courage. In the past, recruiting leadership and corporate executives have received a significant amount of both public and internal criticism that targeted poaching is tantamount to purposely hurting the federal government. So, if you work in recruiting and you have second thoughts about “raiding” the federal workforce, seek out another profession. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution or the law that restricts any firm from poaching federal employees. And with as many as 4.5 million total federal employees, any individual corporate recruiting effort will hardly make a dent in the total federal workforce. As a recruiter, you owe it to your coworkers and shareholders to selfishly build the best talent pool for your firm. If, for whatever reason, the federal government (or any other organization) fails to treat its employees well, let the competitive market process send a message to government leaders that there is a significant long-term economic and service delivery price to be paid for degrading public service and frustrating federal employees. From this perspective, you might even consider yourself to be a “rescuer” rather than a recruiter.
  • Identifying the best recruiting targets — Sites like LinkedIn and federal employee unions make it easier to identify individual federal talent. Start by targeting individuals who hold federal job titles that are similar to yours in the private sector. Also target those individuals who you’ve built a relationship with during the regulatory process (or make them referral sources). Recruiting talent from governing agencies gets you knowledge and influence tips about the regulatory agency, in addition to adding top already experienced talent to your team. Also look for award winners, and those with multiple publications and patents. Also ask the job references of federal new hires if they know of other exceptional federal talent. And outside of the federal government, don’t forget to target the very best local teachers who as a result of several state teacher strikes also are likely to be feeling unappreciated at the current time.
  • Use referrals to find and sell — The best way to both identify and sell federal talent is to encourage your employees to make referrals to the best federal employees that they have worked with. Specifically approach and ask your employees that recently worked for the federal government for referrals. Also when you onboard a new federal hire, specifically ask them to identify the names of other top employees who your recruiter should target.
  • Hire influencers — Aggressive firms should also consider hiring a handful of key federal managers and executives, HR employees, and recruiters from your target agencies. These individuals already know the top talent, and hiring them will give you a quick insight into who and how to target the very best. Also consider offering a bounty to newly hired federal employees who bring along other top talent with them.
  • Target your former employees — Identify and target former employees who left your firm in order to work for the federal government. Proactively contact them and attempt to make them boomerang rehires or referral sources.
  • Encourage your employees to be active on social media — Encourage your employees to be active on sites that are frequented by your targeted federal employees. Also provide your employees with a “social media recruiting tool kit,” which should include sample social media profiles and blogs, as well as other tips that can guide employees in identifying and building relationships with your federal recruiting targets.
  • Put together a federal worker sell sheet — Because other firms will also be recruiting top federal talent, selling becomes critical. So, recruiting should put together a list of the many attraction factors that have been proven to successfully attract federal workers to your firm. Provide this sheet to hiring managers, recruiters, and your well-connected employees that are likely to make referrals.
  • Consider team lift outs — If you are really bold, consider a “team lift out” where you recruit an entire intact federal team all at once.

Final Thoughts

By definition, the best strategic recruiting leaders see opportunities where others don’t, and then they act quickly before others can ramp up for action. Instituting a “right time” federal employee recruiting strategy that takes advantage of the current turmoil can clearly produce some amazing and immediate recruiting results, just like it did after my previous shutdown article back in 2013. But in order to maximize your results, you will need to act quickly before every other firm awakens to this amazing once-in-a-lifetime recruiting opportunity.


Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s April event in San Diego on “recruiting in a candidate-driven market.”

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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