Patriotism Not Enough To Call “Class of 9/11” To Public Service

While public service may still be a calling for many U.S. citizens who wish to serve their country and work for the common good, it’s still not enough of an incentive to attract college graduates, even for the “Class of 9/11,” according to a recent survey.

While public service may still be a calling for many U.S. citizens who wish to serve their country and work for the common good, it’s still not enough of an incentive to attract college graduates, even for the "Class of 9/11," according to a recent survey.

The first survey of the “Class of 9/11” – the first college class to have gone through four years of college affected by the events of that day – reveals that it will take more than an appeal to patriotism to inspire their generation to government service.

The survey, commissioned by the Partnership for Public Service and administered to 805 graduating college seniors from May 2-5, 2005, finds that 83% of the members of the Class of 2005 describe themselves as patriotic and nearly half – 43% – of them say that the events of 9/11 made them more so. However, while 84% of those made more patriotic were instilled with a greater love of country and 50% were inspired to display the flag, only 20% of students said 9/11 made them more interested in government service.

The findings come at a challenging time for the federal government, according to The Partnership. Just over half of the 1.9 million people in the federal government will be eligible to retire in the next five years, including about 70 percent of employees in supervisory positions. At the same time, the government is struggling to attract and retain skilled employees in a wide variety of fields – from intelligence to law enforcement to health care.

When asked which event had a bigger impact on their view of the U.S., the students were split evenly between the attacks of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. However, while 69% of those citing the attacks of 9/11 said it gave them a more positive view of the US, 85% of those citing the war in Iraq said it gave them a more negative view. And, while the vast majority – 69% – of the Class still expects a major terrorist attack in the next five years, as they prepare to leave school, a fear of being unemployed or going into debt far exceeds their fear of another terrorist attack. Perhaps because of the split over Iraq and these other concerns, a strong majority – 60% – reject the idea that they should have been asked to do more to help fight the war on terror.

“Our research shows that the patriotism surrounding 9/11 did not give the government a free pass in recruiting talent,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “We need a new call to public service, one that balances young people’s patriotism with two factors that are just as important to them: pay and prestige.”

Patriotism – While members of the Class of 2005 did experience a sustained upswing in patriotism as a result of 9/11, most do not connect this greater love of country with serving in their country’s government. To better tap these patriotic sentiments, government agencies should more aggressively market themselves, showing young recruits how their work in government will actually make a difference for their community and country, the Partnership said.

Pay – More than four in 10 members of the Class – 43% – cited pay and benefits as the one reason that would make them most likely to consider a career in government. These seniors also expressed concern that the government cannot match the salaries the private sector offers and does not reward better performance with better pay. Modernization efforts aimed at aligning pay with the market and rewarding high achievers with meaningful performance bonuses would go a long way toward reaching this new crop of college graduates, the Partnership recommended.

Prestige – Whether a job is held in high regard is crucial to the Class’s career decisions. Yet two-thirds of seniors said getting a private sector job or starting their own business would make their parents prouder than getting a job in government. The highest academic achievers, those with “A” averages, are the least likely to say that a government job would make their parents most proud. If government agencies are to succeed in recruiting these high achievers they will need to make a much more aggressive push to raise the perceived value of government jobs among both the public at large and key influencers, such as college students’ teachers, parents and peers. If they can do so while also infusing these positions with the greater responsibility that high achievers connect with greater job prestige, they will have taken a large step forward in their quest for talent, according to the Partnership.

The Partnership presented its survey research today at a panel discussion that included three students from the “Class of 9/11:” Patrick Schmidt, a recent Georgetown University graduate, and Malena Brookshire and Harris Markowitz, recent graduates from George Washington University.

“While I had always hoped to be involved in government, 9/11 made my interest that much more urgent,” said Schmidt, a 2005 Georgetown University graduate who recently accepted a job at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “I was eager to do something that might contribute to the public good, and now I will. We make a real difference in peoples’ lives, as evidenced in the letters we receive and the thousands of people we interact with every year.”

“The key reason why I went into the private sector was the opportunities available. In the private sector, everyone has a voice, and I wasn’t sure that this was true in the government,” said Markowitz, a 2005 GWU graduate who will go to work at Ernst & Young in New York City this fall. “The government needs a strategic sales pitch if they want to hire top graduates. They need to explain how their salary and benefits are competitive, and how government jobs are exciting opportunities that you can’t find anywhere else.”

“I was attracted to the federal government because I found a job that perfectly matches my career goals,” said Brookshire, a 2005 George Washington University graduate who will start work at the Securities and Exchange Commission this month. “Having a strong interest in budget management and seeking a work environment where I would put my skills to use from day one, I found the SEC to be a great fit. I get to make a difference and move ahead in my career at the same time.”

In addition to the survey of 805 college seniors, the Partnership’s research included 101 in-depth, one-on-one chat sessions with selected survey participants.

The Partnership for Public Service is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring Americans to government service and transforming the way government works.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47