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The government has a talent problem. This bill could help change that

<i>Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call

Opinion by Gerry Connolly for CNN Business Perspectives

Our workforce is the lifeblood of the US federal government. Without individuals committed to public service, taxpayers, vulnerable populations and small businesses would not have access to critical resources and services. If the federal government fails to attract and hire the best and the brightest into service, the nation and the people it serves suffer.

Unfortunately, we’re already starting to see this play out. Today, federal agencies are failing to promote and leverage internship and fellowship programs to attract early-career talent.

A recent report found that there are nearly six and a half times more federal employees who are older than 50 than under 30. The recently released Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision also highlighted this increasing age gap in the workforce. In 2008, federal employees age 60 and older comprised about 10% of the workforce. Today, they comprise 14%. Civil service experts foresee a catastrophic retirement tsunami, gutting the federal government. Yet, we currently have no plan to replace those with years of expertise who are poised to leave federal service.

As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, I have spent three years examining this looming crisis. So last month, I introduced the NextGen Feds Act.

Most importantly, the bill seeks to provide a pathway to full-time federal service to interns who successfully complete at least one year of federal internship service. Those interns who meet certain criteria would gain advantage in the hiring process, rewarding acumen and proven talent.

This is a much-needed proposal to prevent a workforce breakdown. Despite years of effort, strategic human capital management of the federal workforce remains on the Government Accountability Office’s high risk list — the federal watchdog’s compilation of federal programs and operations most vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement, or generally in dire need of transformation. And myriad additional high risk threats stem from the federal government’s inability to find, hire and train individuals to fill critical gaps in the federal workforce. These skill gaps involve the financial management of the Department of Defense’s weapon systems, the enforcement of our federal tax laws, the cybersecurity of sensitive information, the effective vetting of our national security workforce, and the provision of accessible and quality health care to our veterans — just to name a few.

So why has the federal government struggled to attract young people? Some say it’s the comparatively low pay for in-demand skills in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Pew Research Center found that Baby Boomers are simply staying in their jobs longer than previous generations, leaving fewer job openings for younger workers. Still, others point to the laborious and opaque hiring processes of the federal government as a barrier to early-career entry. In a poll published in 2019, the federal government’s reputation ranked last in comparison to 100 top companies. That is a quite a departure from John F. Kennedy’s call to public service.

But it isn’t just the public sector that is facing a Great Resignation. The pandemic has caused workers across the board to re-evaluate what they look for in an employment package, from telework flexibility, compensation, student loan repayment options and parental leave.

This cocktail of hurdles to hiring early career individuals inhibits the federal government’s ability to compete for talent with private sector competitors. But we cannot expect federal agencies to fix this problem by themselves — Congress has a pivotal role to play.

Right now, it is unclear how many federal interns and federal internship programs exist. No federal agency is tasked with collecting such information — or ensuring that interns are treated appropriately and supported throughout their service. The best-known internship program, Pathways, which has interns in agencies across the federal government, had more than 60,000 paid interns in 2010, but by 2020 participation had tanked to just 4,000.

While the federal government struggles to count how many interns it has, one private company that competes with the government for talent recently told me that they offer jobs to approximately 96% of their interns. And nearly every offer is accepted. Simply put, individuals graduating from top schools are not attracted to enter federal service, and those who intern for the federal government aren’t guaranteed a pathway to full-time work.

The NextGen Feds Act will change that. It would bring uniformity and best practices, like mentorships and exit interviews, to federal internships across the government. These measures can improve an intern’s experience and help agencies get better at engaging early-career talent. Upon enactment, the legislation would establish a federal internship and fellowship center within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and would require OPM to design and manage an online internship platform for agencies and those seeking internships. The legislation seeks to foster diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility by requiring federal agencies to pay all interns.

Our nation is at an inflection point, and the federal government must meet the moment. Young people seek jobs with meaning and flexibility. Federal agencies excel at offering occupations vested in passion and purpose. Government must work to shift the Great Resignation into a bold recruitment and retention effort. As we ring in a new year, we must continue our work to foster a more vibrant, diverse employee population — and find and grow the talent that will innovate us through whatever the future has in store.

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