Federal Agencies Finding Ways to Recruit STEMM Candidates

By Bill Leonard Jun 9, 2013
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The U.S. government, just like any major employer, is grappling with a worldwide shortage of highly skilled workers. And while federal agencies share many of the same challenges private sector employers face in identifying, recruiting and hiring skilled workers, these challenges are intensified by the massive size of the federal workforce and by the growing need for candidates with science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical (STEMM) skills.

The report, The Biggest Bang Theory: How to get the most out of the competitive search for STEMM talent, provides an in-depth analysis of the challenges that the federal government faces, offers recommendations and outlines recruiting practices that have worked well for agencies such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Science Foundation.

“Of course the federal government has to be different and add the extra ‘M’ to the STEM acronym that most private-sector employers use,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, D.C., which published the study in conjunction with the consulting group of Booz Allen Hamilton. “But medical and health care issues are very important, and most people probably don’t realize that the U.S. government is one of the largest, if not the largest, employers of health care professionals in the world.”

A Daunting Challenge

By adding medical professionals into the mix, the government’s need for qualified STEMM candidates would probably send many private sector recruiters ducking for cover. The study revealed that nearly 525,000 federal employees work in STEMM-related jobs, which is slightly less than 30 percent of the total civilian federal workforce of 1.85 million.

Nearly 47 percent of these federal STEMM employees are 50 or older, so the government faces a huge challenge of replacing these workers as they approach retirement age.

“Over the next 10 years, more than a quarter million of these workers will retire, so you can see the huge challenge the government faces in replacing these highly skilled workers in the talent shortage situation of today’s labor market,” said Palguta.

The Feds’ Recruiting Edge

The study examined ways the federal government could compete for STEMM candidates and found that the government did have a number of competitive edges over private-sector employees. First, many federal agencies conduct research or perform work not commonly found in the private sector. NASA, for example, has been very successful recruiting the top experts in fields like geophysics, aeronautics and robotics.

“Many of the top candidates in these and related fields want to work for NASA, because of the work and research that they are doing, so they have a tremendous recruiting advantage,” Palguta said. “The same can be said for agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Centers for Disease Control.”

In addition, government work appeals to people who want to serve their country and help others.

“The work definitely is very alluring to people who have a strong sense of duty and want to help others,” Palguta. “The federal government also still has some very good benefits packages, so that’s a plus. But there are downsides too.”

The current political atmosphere in Washington has been tough on the federal workforce, as many face unpaid furloughs from the budget impasses of recent years and salary levels have been frozen since 2010. Pending legislation in the U.S. Senate would extend the freeze on pay raises for three years.

“Right now, it’s tough to be a federal employee,” Palguta said. “Morale is understandably low for many, but there’s also an attitude among federal agencies that ‘this too shall pass’ and that the situation will brighten once the budget issues are resolved and the economy continues to improve.”

Creative HR Partnerships Work

According to Palguta, the study results illustrate the importance of innovative partnerships between human resources and top-level management.

“The agencies that fare the best in attracting and hiring the best candidates have dynamic and innovative CHROs [chief human resource officers] who have forged a strong working relationship with the agency heads,” Palguta said.

The study examined the best recruiting practices of these agencies and developed a list of recommendations for identifying and hiring the best STEMM candidates. Since research for the study featured interviews with organizations such as Chevron Corp. and United Technologies, many of the recommendations also might work in the private sector. The recommendations include:

  • Use the mission as the magnet. Many people aspire to serve their nation because they want to make a difference in the lives of others, and they draw a sense of pride from serving their country.
  • Mine diamonds as they are forming. Agencies successful at STEMM hiring cast their nets early to bring in high-quality young people. For example, the National Institutes of Health broaden the talent pool by offering summer internships to STEMM students in high school.
  • Send out the Sheldons (a reference to one of the lead characters on television’s “The Big Bang Theory.” Surveys have shown that peers are the most effective recruiters of college students. Additional research also has shown the value of sending scientists and engineers to recruit their peers at colleges and universities.
  • Keep their eyes on an XPRIZE. Innovative federal agencies and some private sector employees are creating competitions that give people a chance to solve challenging puzzles. Agencies and businesses use these competitions, which can be run at minimal cost, as a way to put candidates to the test and witness them in action.
  • Beta test your talent. Because of increasingly tight budgets, federal agencies must use internships wisely and take the approach that they are testing out future employees. Internships offer the opportunity to evaluate how STEMM interns perform on the job and to assess these candidates for both skills and job fit.

“The federal government is facing a huge challenge in attracting people with STEMM skills at a time when the demand for their talents is only going to grow,” said Palguta. “However, the government is very well-positioned to meet this challenge, and by building strong HR partnerships within the agencies and by following some best practices, then the government will definitely have a competitive advantage and always be an employer of choice for these highly sought after candidates.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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