Academic journal article The Public Manager

Top Undergraduates View Federal Employment

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Top Undergraduates View Federal Employment

Article excerpt

Few Phi Beta Kappa students believe federal workers have much job flexibility.

In 1988, the Volcker Commission found "an erosion of student interest in public life." Among other things, the commission found that:

according to (a) sample of honor society students, the public service is not perceived as a place where talented people can get ahead. Few of the top graduates feel the federal government can offer good pay and recognition for performance. Fewer still say a federal job can be challenging and intellectually stimulating.

These concerns have continued. A decade later, the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) assembled an Advisory Council on Public Service Careers to explore ways to sustain and invigorate student interest in careers in public service. NASPAA also convened a Task Force for Public Service and Public Service Education.

How valid are these concerns? This article presents research findings on how academically successful students view careers in the federal government, addressing two fundamental questions:

* How do academically successful college seniors, such as Phi Beta Kappas ([phi]BKs), view typical federal civil service jobs?

* What factors most influence top students to want to work in the federal government?

"Academically successful" was measured as membership in [phi]BK, widely recognized for honoring academic achievement. Phi Beta Kappa was also selected because it is the same liberal arts honor society the Volcker Commission studied 10 years earlier.


To identify plausible motivating factors (both pro and con) for careers in the federal government, an extensive review of previous research was undertaken. Factors cited most often by researchers focused on issues of salary, benefits, security, advancement, autonomy, altruism, and efficiency, and sometimes included such matters as diversity, prestige, recognition, and co-workers. To probe these issues and to search for any additional motivating factors not cited in the literature, nine focus groups were held at the Catholic University of America (CUA); the George Washington University (GWU); the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC); and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). Then, in 1998, a survey questionnaire was mailed to [phi]BKs, most of whom were undergraduate seniors. A total of 605 students participated, a good response rate (41 percent) for a mail questionnaire.

Impressions of Federal Jobs

To add clarity, students were asked to rate 21 job-related factors in terms of "how typical do you think this is of a federal job where recent college graduates might be employed?" (See Appendix A.) Figure 1 reports the percent of [phi]BKs who ranked each factor as "very" or "mostly" typical of federal jobs (i.e., the two most favorable scores on the five-point scale).

Federal jobs are widely viewed among [phi]BKs as providing attractive benefits (82 percent) and job security (67 percent). In the words of one GWU focus group participant, you would get "good benefits" and are "not likely to lose your job." However, far fewer students presume that the starting salary (18 percent) or subsequent salary increases (30 percent) are attractive. "Money is better in the private sector," commented another student, without prompting dissent in the focus group. In a more positive vein, about half of the students gave federal jobs credit for workplace diversity (52 percent), "opportunities for career advancement (52 percent)," and "supportive family leave policies (51 percent)."

The most negative scores reflected the apparently widespread assumption that federal workers wear bureaucratic straightjackets leaving little room to maneuver. Only four percent thought that a typical federal job held by college graduates would allow "freedom to do your job your own way." Similarly, only 11 percent expected such a job to have "efficient procedures" for work. …

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