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Divergents in the Federal Workforce

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sheila Toppin
Match 30, 2018

Veronica Roth’s 2015 bestseller, Divergent, provides an interesting allegory for millennials entering the federal workforce. The main character, Tris Prior, was believed to be a divergent of the futuristic city as she resisted identification with only one of the five distinct factions. Instead of embracing the divergency of the younger generation, the rulers sought to eradicate anyone and anything that posed a risk to the status quo. As a result, Tris is forced to conceal her divergent identity which ultimately results in interpersonal and identity conflicts, and threats to her life.

The United States Census Bureau classifies the millennial generation as those born between 1982 and 2000 (age 18 – 36). Richard Fry, as stated in his 2018 article “Millennials Projected to Overtake Baby Boomers as America’s Largest Generation,” stated there were 83.1 million millennials in 2015 (i.e., one quarter of the nation’s population) which exceeds baby boomers (75.4 million). Like the younger generation in the Divergent, todays’ millennials have diversified interests, skills and abilities. Interestingly, millennials can be viewed as divergent in their communication modes, typical living patterns, diversity, languages and educational attainment.

Millennials are a technologically savvy and dependent generation; thus, offering the workforce more than academic preparation or vocational skills. Their advancement in key sociological areas of global communication (i.e., social media) position them to be assets in our global economy. Furthermore, they are more transient than previous generations who purchased houses, settled down and got married earlier. As of 2012, 36 percent of young adults ages 18 to 31 were living with their parents. In 2007, 30 percent of this age group were married, but in 2012, only 25 percent were married according to Richard Fry. In addition to this generations’ divergent communication mode and living patterns, they offer the federal workforce highly sought-after attributes in diversity, second languages and academic preparation. In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau published the findings of the American Community Survey 2009 – 2013. The survey revealed millennials are more diverse as the percentage of young adults today who are foreign born has more than doubled since 1980 (15 percent versus 6 percent). Additionally, millennials are more likely to speak a second language as one in four young adults, or 17.9 million, speak a language other than English at home. Lastly, this generation is more likely to be college educated as 22 percent have a college degree, which is up from 16 percent in 1980.

Despite the divergencies, attracting and retaining millennial workers is critical to the future of public workforce as they will comprise 50 percent of the global workforce by 2020, as stated by Aoife Flood in the 2014 article, “Next Generation Diversity: Developing Tomorrow’s Female Leaders.” Unfortunately, many public sector hiring managers are focused on immediate organizational needs rather than future workforce trends. Mike Maciag as stated in his 2013 article, “Millennials Face Hurdles Breaking into Public Sector,” contended public hiring managers tend to hire experienced workers who can hit the ground running (i.e., Baby boomers, Generation X). This is evidenced by the lower rate of millennials in the federal workforce (17 percent), at a time when 43 percent of the federal workforce is eligible for retirement within the next three to five years according to the Society for Human Resources Workforce Forecast in 2013. The failure to recruit and retain millennials, even those with graduate degrees in public administration or policy, has forced them to accept positions in the private and nonprofit sectors to avoid unemployment and underemployment, and to pursue upward mobility opportunities.

In 2010, President Obama signed Executive Order 13562 “Recruiting and Hiring Students and Recent Graduates” which authorized federal agencies to utilize the Pathways Program to provide an entryway for millennials to enter federal agencies as interns with the hope of conversion into competitive service employees. In 2016, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducted a program evaluation and found federal agencies were utilizing the Pathways Program to supplement rather than replace competitive examining; thus, delaying the hiring process. The Pathways Program showed positive outcomes in appointee satisfaction of the training and development provided by their respective agencies, increased hiring of diverse applicant groups and high retention rates.

The Partnership for Public Service began collaborative work on the federal hiring process and called for major reforms to the federal government’s civil service system. The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton released “Building the Enterprise: Nine Strategies for a More Integrated, Effective Government.” The strategies included recommendations to modernize outdated federal pay and hiring policies. In response, congress passed the Competitive Service Act of 2015 to address immediate needs for diversifying the federal workforce by allowing federal agencies to share information on qualified applicants when filling similar positions. The policy intended to broaden the federal recruiting and selecting process; however, the impact of the economic recession forced agencies to slow the hiring pipeline. The Executive and Legislative Branches are to be commended for their efforts to increase millennial representation in the federal government; however, budgetary restrictions and agency processes have continued to be barriers in the hiring of millennials at the agency level.

In conclusion, the Veronica Roth’s literary creativity in Divergent demonstrates the outcome of a society unwilling to accept and involve divergents. The federal government should not mirror that fictional society, but instead begin to proactively recruit, select and retain divergents or the millennial generation in the federal workforce. As reflected above, preliminary findings revealed the Pathways Program has merit and if properly implemented will lead to an increase in the millennial representation in the federal workforce. Federal agencies are encouraged to implement the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s recommendations:

  1. Require hiring managers to become knowledgeable collaborators and subject matter experts on the mission and goals of the Pathways Programs;
  2. Commit resources to engage the Pathways Program appointees through dedicated mentors;
  3. Incorporate the Pathways Program into strategic workforce planning efforts for succession planning of Governmentwide and agency-specific mission-critical occupations;
  4. Improve accuracy and completeness of tracking data for Pathways Programs appointments.

Author: Sheila Toppin is an Assistant Professor and MPA internship coordinator in the Public Administration Department at Clark Atlanta University. She can be contacted at 404-880-6650 or email:  [email protected]

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