Recruiting Against the Private Sector: What Government Can Do to Better to Compete for Talent From Campus

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 6.57.27 AMIn a previous article, we described the keen interest in employment in the public sector by millenials. Federal employment provides many of the most important attributes that students identify as attractive for their careers. This is evidenced by federal agencies being chosen among the top “ideal employers” identified in Universum’s student survey of tens of thousands of college students: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Institutes of Health, Peace Corps, Department of State, and NASA, to name a few. However, despite the appeal of public sector careers, most government agencies are quite inefficient in their recruiting and selection processes and consequently lose many top candidates to the private sector.

Compounding this handicap is the fact that the job market for new campus graduates has heated up once again. According to the 2014 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, employers plan to increase their hiring from the class of 2014 by 7.8 percent for their U.S. operations. While the job market is certainly tough for some recent graduates, the most sought-after candidates are receiving multiple offers with higher salaries. Agency recruiting and hiring practices must change to effectively for the desired talent.

Here are 11 suggestions that the public sector might deploy that parallel successful practices in the private sector:

  1. Conduct better workforce planning:  For years, we’ve been hearing that the retirement tsunami would soon be washing over the federal government — and government agencies need to plan for these anticipated vacancies. The best-managed private sector companies truly value the talent in their organizations, and they produce semi-annual or annual workforce staffing plans in order to strategically plan for anticipated vacancies. Companies analyze growth, anticipated retirements, voluntary and non-voluntary attrition, skills gaps, as well as expertise in technologies being taught in college that current employees might not possess. This planning usually results in an algorithm that predicts hires needed from both the experienced marketplace and campuses. This creates a more quantifiable, strategic approach to recruiting. While somewhat risky if the hiring assumptions do not materialize, this proactive approach has proven to be effective in the private sector (e.g. financial institutions and accounting firms) but most government agencies have not widely adopted this approach.
  2. Understand and leverage the agency’s employer value proposition: Highlighting an agency’s mission, while important, is simply not enough to convince applicants to apply.  Agencies must understand their EVP and how it differentiates them from the competition.  What is the agency culture? What impacts does the agency have? What attracts people to join the agency? Why do they stay? What does the future hold for the agency? Based on factors like these, agencies can design talent attraction strategies. The private sector puts a great deal of effort into defining and tailoring an EVP that sets the company up for consistent success in attracting people that will fit the culture and want to grow there. The culture should be appealing to the target demographics, but above all it must be genuine. Artificial branding can dupe people into applying, but when employees discover the culture is not as advertised they are quick to move on to greener pastures, wasting the investment the agency made to attract and hire that person, as well as incurring the cost of hiring a replacement.
  3. Use intern programs more strategically: In 2009, the Partnership for Public Service study, Leaving Talent on the Table, revealed that less than 10 percent of federal interns were being converted into permanent hires. In stark contrast, the average conversion rate of interns in private industry is between 55-60 percent. In public accounting, it is around 90 percent! According to the Partnership, federal agencies are reluctant to offer permanent (full-time) positions at the conclusion of a successful summer internship because the agencies are uncertain if they will have the authorized vacancies when the interns graduate. This is a direct roadblock to retaining top talent and, in effect, the agencies wind up training students who competitors often hire. The Office of Personnel Management’s new Pathways program has made it easier to hire interns into permanent (full-time) jobs, but agencies need to work harder to compete with the private sector.
  4. Pick key universities and concentrate on them: In some government agencies there is a misconception that recruiting at specific universities may conflict with merit principles that require vacancies to be open to all qualified candidates. While we are not advocating excluding any applicants, we are suggesting that there are certain programs or majors that can naturally serve as feeders for certain agencies. For an agency to truly penetrate a university to source talent, it must take a concerted effort to partner with relevant academic departments, faculty members, student organizations and clubs, just as the private sector does.
  5. Form campus teams composed of alumni and non-HR employees at key universities: Undoubtedly, a significant difference between private industry and governmental recruitment activities is the deployment of campus teams to help identify talent. In the private sector, teams comprised of non-HR staff attend events, offer educational training, participate on panels, and engage in a wide range of other campus activities that are essential to identify and attract talent. Government agencies often rely solely on HR staff to recruit on campus, with little (if any) support from employees in the positions into which most students would be hired.
  6. Use former interns as ambassadors and talent scouts: Some of the best-managed intern programs in the private sector employ their former interns in a formal capacity as ambassadors to convince their fellow classmates of the benefits of their companies. These former interns also serve as talent scouts, identifying and engaging top students who should be considered or are attracted to the company. Government organizations should use their interns in a similar fashion as an inexpensive but effective way to source and attract the best graduates for permanent positions.
  7. Deploy senior executives early in the recruiting process: Campus presentations are a great way to generate substantial and genuine interest among students who are prospective job candidates. However, public sector agencies often bring  only lower-level staff or recruiters to speak about their organizations. The most successful presentations in the private sector are often delivered by senior executives. This is a significant differentiator because students want to learn about positions they can aspire to attain. A senior executive can provide first-hand knowledge about how to move up in an organization, while a lower-level recruiter tends to lack this perspective and experience.
  8. Constantly assess and improve marketing and branding materials: Quite often, federal agency recruiting materials and social media platforms are outdated or are not appealing to millennials. At a recent campus presentation by a federal agency at a major university, it was obvious that a standard slide deck presented to MBA students was a generic presentation the agency used not only for undergraduate audiences, but even for high school students. Because this presentation was not customized for the audience or educational level of attendees, it fell flat and was ineffective. The private sector devotes resources to vetting marketing presentations, documents, job descriptions, and job advertisements with an eye toward understanding and attracting relevant talent. Employer branding is increasingly important, and organizations can no longer afford to use one-size-fits-all messaging. Universum’s employment preference data and experience with focus groups and student panels prove that different majors, genders, ethnicities, and age groups are attracted to very different aspects of employers. The organizations that understand and focus on these nuances will most effectively engage the widest variety of talent.
  9. Accelerate the hiring process: Most companies with robust campus recruiting programs make offers to graduating students in November and December, up to six months before the students graduate. These firms expect decisions to be made on those offers by the end of January, if not sooner. In MBA recruiting, companies try to influence students to make decisions even sooner. Federal hiring programs, however, can have deadlines for resume submission as late as April, with interviews occurring in April, May, and June, before offers are extended in July. That’s at least six weeks after graduation! As a result, these government agencies miss the best graduates who have already received or accepted other offers. In fact, some government hiring programs actually hurt a business school’s reputation because schools usually report job acceptance statistics to the press by the time students graduate.
  10. Always look to learn: Continuously improve recruiting processes. This means assessing the performance of staff involved in the recruiting process, the benefits of intern programs, and other elements of the attraction and hiring continuum. The students themselves have the most accurate view of how well these components are working. Students view the hiring program with fresh eyes, first-hand, and in full. So hiring organizations should ask probing questions of those who were offered positions — both those who accepted and declined. Then engage other stakeholders: hiring managers, interviewers, intern supervisors, faculty, and career services professionals at universities. Analyze what worked well, what did not, where there are significant challenges. and where the best opportunities are. Then act on these learnings.
  11. Treat university recruiting like a business unit: Many public sector agencies do not track or analyze key recruiting metrics. Standard hiring measurements like recruiting yield (the number of candidates who need to go through each step to produce a hire); hiring costs; return on investment; and hires from career fairs, universities and diversity events; are just a few of the metrics that the most successful companies track. These metrics help employers improve their programs, enhance their presence at target schools and conferences, and ensure the best use of human and financial capital. In addition, senior executives should be holding the university relations function accountable for demonstrating annually how it has recruited effectively and cost-efficiently.

Government agencies are attractive employers for the millennial generation. The results of Universum’s survey speak for themselves; some federal agencies hold great appeal as employers to a large pool of students across the country. If the public sector can borrow some of the practical recruiting solutions from the private sector’s playbook, government agencies will not only recruit more cost effectively in the long run, they will also improve the quality of  new hires who provide public services to our nation’s citizens.

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Some of the Related Conference Sessions at the ERE Recruiting Conference in San Diego:

  • Revamp Your College Recruiting Program Now: An Imperative Given the New World of Higher Education (Wednesday, April 23, 2 p.m.)
John Flato
John Flato is vice president of research & consulting for Vault.com, the Web’s leading resource for insider career and education information. A veteran campus recruiting expert, he has led campus recruiting programs for major organizations including AlliedSignal (now Honeywell), CIGNA, and Ernst & Young. He also served as the director of career management at Georgetown University’s MBA School. He is a frequent industry speaker and has won numerous awards from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Employment Management Association.
Bob Lavigna

Bob Lavigna is assistant vice chancellor-HR at the University of Wisconsin. Previously, he was vice president-research for the Partnership for Public Service, senior manager of consulting for CPS HR Services, and administrator of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. His book, Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance is available through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.