A hiring freeze and talk of big policy changes with a new presidential administration can be unsettling for young people hoping to enter the federal workforce. But if you ask experienced government executives, they will tell you that it’s a good time to get into public service.
On Feb. 22, a panel of federal executives assured students that not only was there a place for them in public service, but it remains a noble calling.
"I can't remember a moment or time in public service when there hasn’t been challenges," said Gwen Sykes, chief financial officer for the U.S. Secret Service. “No matter what job you do, when you are in public service, you are serving the American public.”
Despite the hiring freeze, some agencies and departments, including the law enforcement agencies, are authorized to fill positions.
"Use the federal hiring freeze time to learn about the government. Figure out what you want to do,” Sykes advised students.
Zina Sutch, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Office of Personnel Management, started in the private sector as a stock broker and told the audience that she soon realized the work didn’t align with her values.
“My passion is working to help other people," she said. “Tap into what is it that you bring. Figure out what matters to you.”
Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Human Resources, said there will always be challenges in public service.
“That’s why we do this because we fix things,” said Wells. “We make them better than they were.”
As the federal workforce ages, there is a need for millennials to enter with innovative ideas, said Bill Valdez, who spent his career at the U.S. Department of Energy and now is president of the Senior Executives Association. The current “pause in hiring” will prompt many agencies to conduct internal reviews and do more with less.
“There is going to be a huge need for your generation to come up and build those new mission critical positions,” said Valdez. “The hiring freeze, along with a well thought out workforce plan for the federal government, will pay long-term benefits for everybody in this room.”
SPA’s Patrick Malone, executive in residence and director of the Key Leadership Program, moderated the event and asked the panelists why now, more than ever, should young people think about a career in public service.
"This election highlighted the divisions that exist in our country,” said Wells. “Where we go in the future is going to require extraordinary men and women who believe in this country and what it can become. The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity has always existed but it is accentuated now. The problems we are dealing with in this world are escalating - climate issues, terrorism, the economic situation - and are reaching a fever pitch that we have to address.”
Sutch said administrations come and go, but those in the government must be a-political.
“The side that we are on is the side of the people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who is taking on the leadership role. What matters is that we are serving the people in the best way we possibly can. Change is forcing federal workers to think differently and be creative - which can be rewarding. When adversity strikes, that’s when the biggest opportunities open up.”