Recruiting Young People to Local Government

The goal for both organizations is to increase youth participation in public service by capitalizing on increased civic engagement.

The goal for both organizations is to increase youth participation in public service by capitalizing on increased civic engagement. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Two start-ups aim to establish a "pipeline" between recent college graduates and state and local government jobs.

Impending worker shortages are likely to impact local and state governments, most notably by the “silver tsunami” of civil servants who will soon be eligible to retire. Recruiting younger employees is the obvious solution, but governments often lack the funding or the know-how to participate in on-campus job fairs and recruitment activities—so students often aren’t aware of the opportunities available in the public sector.

Two start-ups are aiming to change that. Both place recent college graduates into two-year fellowships with state and local governments that have job openings relevant to the students’ interest. Major isn’t important, but an interest in public service is essential. Positions are nonpartisan—think county budget analyst rather than campaign finance director—and already exist, meaning jobs aren’t being created specifically for the fellowship programs, and governments are not required to later hire the fellows selected by either organization.

Govern for America focuses on positions in state government, while Lead for America matches students with open jobs in municipal government. Both will launch their first fellowship classes in 2019, and plan to provide in-depth training and mentorship opportunities for fellows, regardless of the specific job they accept.

The overarching goal is to increase youth participation in public service at a time when young people are engaged and interested in making change. The challenge is helping them see that government can be an outlet for those desires, said Octavia Abell, co-founder of Govern for America.

“There is declining interest in public sector careers and disproportionately, young people are being funneled into more traditional corporate pathways,” Abell told Route Fifty. “Often, coming out of undergrad, they see opportunities in finance and consulting and don’t see government as a place where they can work on cool problems or do meaningful work. So we’re struggling with this issue of how to capitalize on the energy and momentum of young people wanting to make change and not seeing government as a place to do that.”

Abell has a background in state government—she worked previously as the director of strategy in Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation—and laid the foundation of Govern for America by talking to her counterparts in other state governments. What she and co-founder Kyleigh Russ discovered was a lack of recruiting strategies for open positions, particularly any outreach aimed at college students and recent graduates.

“There have been efforts at the federal and municipal levels, and there have been efforts to attract mid-career folks to managerial roles, but we found nothing focused on recruiting recent undergraduates and activating them at a point when they can be inspired to a career in public service,” she said. “We were looking to bring those efforts together, and that was really where the idea for Govern for America came from.”

The fellowship matching process begins by reaching out to government officials in a handful of states to learn about existing talent gaps, then recruiting students whose skills match the existing opportunities—and presenting them in a compelling way.

“For some students that’s a topical focus. Some are graduating and saying, ‘I want to solve this problem in this space,’” Abell said. “For others, it’s the opportunity to work with leaders that are combating these complex problems, and being at the table, making those decisions and being part of the solution.”

Some state agencies are more difficult to recruit for than others, she said. IT and health care jobs, for example, face a high degree of competition from the private sector. But those opportunities do exist in government, along with others that students may not be aware of.

“We look to say, ‘How can we find states the talent that they can’t currently access to fill an immediate need?’” Abell said. “We’re not asking states to create new roles. We’re saying, ‘How can we find you the talent?’”

The process is similar at Lead for America. The bulk of the organization’s placements in its first year will be in North Carolina, where co-founder and CEO Joe Nail established a network of government contacts during his time at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Recruitment involves reaching out to those contacts to see where a recent graduate, who has received in-depth training and mentorship prior as part of the fellowship program, could be placed in local government.

“We’ve received proposals from local governments that say, ‘We want people to be working on addressing the opioid crisis,’ to other counties and small towns saying, ‘We want this young person to be working on our economic development team to recruit folks,’” Nail told Route Fifty.

Students can apply to serve in one of the organization’s pre-confirmed sites, or they can apply as “hometown fellows,” returning to work in the places where they grew up.

“Students are really interested in serving back in the communities that helped them grow and get to where they are,” Nail said. “We think it’s been a compelling sell.”

To make it financially feasible for students to serve in more rural areas, Lead for America will supplement some government salaries, using a mix of funding from foundations, universities and associations that represent local governments. Some locations will also give fellows the opportunity to live with host families, which would cover housing and food expenses and include an additional stipend.

The ultimate goal, Nail said, is to furnish a permanent pipeline from universities to governments, building a network of young people who are similarly committed to public service.

“Our goal is to build a movement of tens of thousands of young people over the course of several decades who have this shared experience of making change at a local level, who also are all really committed to continuing in public service careers,” he said. “It’s a huge focus for us to be developing future local government leaders and trying to do as much as we can to build that pipeline.”

The interest is there, Nail added, though the recruitment process includes some education about what local governments do and the types of services they provide.

“I think a lot of people don’t really know the full extent to which local government is responsible for some crucial services,” he said. “That being said we’ve found really significant enthusiasm, and I think at a time when the national political scene is polarizing, young people are aware that there are local communities and governments working hard every single day to get things done.”

Increasing recruitment efforts for young people is key to ensuring the vitality and long-term success of local governments, said Kirsten Wyatt, founder and director of nonprofit Engaging Local Government Leaders.

“I absolutely think that providing local governments with more avenues to recruit talent is needed,” Wyatt told Route Fifty. “If these groups are going to match up the best and the brightest from college campuses with local governments that are hiring, I think that’s phenomenal.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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