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Recruitment in the Public Sector

We have been hearing for the past four years that government is becoming the biggest job supplier and taking over that function from the private sector. While that has been the constant criticism of the Obama government, whether it was to ostensibly save failing industries or to create shovel-ready jobs, individuals who have found work or whose jobs may have survived are undoubtedly grateful for their employment.

The question is: has this employment boon been a necessary knee jerk reaction, a typical consequence of the soft economy or a planned objective? I believe the first two reasons to be true, not the latter. I have long held the strategic view that public-private partnerships are the way to go and that government sponsored employment is an undesirable direction.

Raising the question, “whether the best and brightest are attracted to public service,” presupposes the fact that the government has a strategic vision behind governance and hiring. I believe that not to be the case. In a government divided along party lines for over a decade, strategy is non-existent. The country has been in survival mode while it suffers through in-fighting within and across political parties.

Where are the new graduates and experienced workers headed for employment? Wherever it exists! What is the difference between working in the government or the private sector for an individual? Employees in the government at all levels are heavily unionized, less so in the private sector especially in small and medium businesses. Individuals, then, can expect to be paid for performance in the private sector and are likely to be treated like the masses within their pay scale in the public sector. Private sector likely pays 20 percent or more than the public sector, but is riskier when times are tough. However, recently the operations in the public sector have been stymied by furloughs and budget impasses and these gridlocks cannot add to confidence even in government employment.

Another sad state of affairs is the current recruitment process. Both public and private sector organizations are performing a “scantron” type of selection process of aspiring candidates. Resumes are scanned by workers with little subject matter experience who highlight key words and phrases pertaining to jobs in candidate resumes, passing or rejecting them based on a “score” of highlights that are found in the scan. The results of this type of hiring are at best unpredictable. It is clear that many good candidates who do not have the time or inclination to rewrite their resumes or pepper them with appropriate terms will be skipped.

Government budgets at all levels are typically strapped. Hiring of individuals is often at entry level salaries within job levels and better candidates are consequently not hirable or not retainable if they do decide to take on those jobs. It should therefore not be a surprise that government is not able to attract and retain the “best and brightest” candidates, at least those from the experienced group of applicants.

What is a new graduate to do? If the government does not have a strategic plan for hiring, the graduates definitely need to have one. Depending on the field of study and degree, many are headed for Wall Street or large corporations and so the brighter ones, at least on an academic scale and perhaps based on internships, are likely to be headed to the private sector. Some may join the armed forces to earn and learn skills that they can use down the road, probably in the private sector. They may not be well paid, but it beats getting into debt while earning a degree. Others may take what they can get to pay their bills and debts.

With a tuition debt load and a desire to be on their own, many graduates will apply for government positions to gain experience and try to lessen their debt until they have gained a foothold in their field of service. Promising candidates may be promoted, parachuted into vacancies and develop a promising career within government. Bound by union rules, pay freezes, lack of tangible performance recognition and other such factors, the better ones are likely to leave once they have achieved a level of employment and experience stability. Some of the brighter ones will be recruited by business and consulting firms that need such individuals who understand the public sector climate, how to work and sell in it.

What is the answer for government to retain skilled and bright individuals? Certainly on a one-off basis, senior officials in the government often lean on business leaders to take point positions in government. But we really need to deal with the entry level and mid-level positions. Enticing individuals into those positions will depend on the responsibility, accountability, authority, leadership, mentoring and training that can be packaged into offers.

I am of the firm belief that government should be responsible for policy and define expectations for services, and farm out the delivery to the private sector. It then becomes the responsibility of the public servant to develop policy, establish metrics for expectations and the processes for partnership with the organizations that will deliver the work. Individuals in the public sector will have clearly mapped out responsibilities and the success of the partnerships with the private sector will be reflective of their achievements. A true partnership between the public and private sector will require competent and skilled individuals, with pay scales and growth in jobs reflected in both sets of organizations.

There will consequently be a lesser differentiation between equivalent positions in the government and industry. New graduates and experienced professionals will be able to compare positions in terms of responsibilities, progression and to a lesser degree pay and benefits. At that point, it becomes a personal choice of careers.


Author: Shami Dugal holds a Bachelor’s degree in Operations Research from University of Waterloo (Canada) and an MPA from Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa). He has consulted to the public and private sectors for more than 25 years in Canada and the United States. He can be reached at [email protected]


Image courtesy of http://worldofdtcmarketing.com/help-wanted-must-be-willing-to-be-told-we-cant-do-that-because-were-a-regulated-industry/working-in-the-industry/.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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