Graduate students can help the feds fend off big resignations

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This week, the Department of Labor announced a record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November, pointing out that the Big Quit is still in full swing. But one employer, the federal government, has avoided the current wave of quits and retirements. That, however, is about to change.

The feds will soon have their own version of the Big Quit for a number of reasons. First, nearly 15% of the workforce is over 60, and the largest Big Quit cohort has been among older workers who have chosen to retire early.

Second, the private sector should raise wages in response to higher inflation and tight labor markets. As a result, many civil servants can find better opportunities (and more money) in the private sector.

Finally, at some point in 2022, the federal government will ask workers to return to the office. Even with the recent surge in Omicron cases, many agencies plan to recruit office staff as soon as possible.

The good news is that the federal government can turn this challenge into an opportunity to attract a new generation of talented young people to its ranks. And they can help pay for it by maintaining the shift from in-person travel to virtual travel.

Today, only 8% of the federal workforce is under 30, compared to 23% in the private sector. According to the Office of Management (OMB), “every agency has fewer employees under the age of 30 today than in 2010.” And paid internship opportunities fell 93% between 2010 and 2020, nearly wiping out the opportunity for young American college and graduate students to serve.

Fortunately, the federal government has already put in place an effective tool to encourage young professionals to join its ranks: the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program. PMF is a highly competitive initiative that matches outstanding graduate students with talent-hungry agencies by making selected positions available exclusively to PMF finalists each year. The program continues to grow in popularity and applications increased by 20% in 2021, meaning around 8,000 applicants applied for just 500 PMF slots.

Given the program’s need and popularity, the administration should ask Congress to double the number of Presidential Management Scholars from 500 per year to 1,000. The federal government is a massive employer, and even for scholars of brightest and most tenacious jobs, the process of identifying and landing a federal job can be daunting. More PMF positions would help.

The increase in the number of slots should also be linked to reforms to ensure that the selections are diverse and representative of the country. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will need to do a better job of outreach to minorities, including working with minority institutions and alumni.

To help pay for the increase, Congress could keep travel budgets 50% below pre-pandemic levels, something many agencies already do. With the increasing use of virtual meeting apps such as Zoom and GoToMeeting, the need for federal travel has been greatly reduced.

The Big Quick offers a unique opportunity to bring a new generation of recent workers into the federal ranks. Policy makers would be wise to take up this challenge and expand the PMF program to more graduate students.

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