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I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Talent shortage in the government.

Politicians, especially Republicans, love to bash government. Apparently, their message has an impact on more than just voters: Interest in government jobs is falling, particularly among people starting their careers.

To younger workers, the private sector and the nonprofit sectors are sexy; government work isn’t. Consider these stats: Workers under age 30 make up almost a quarter of the entire civilian work force. But in the federal government, they account for only about six percent. The trend is similar in state and local governments. The seeming lack of interest in government work is especially notable at the state level, where over the past five years, job postings have increased by 11 percent while the number of applicants has fallen by 25 percent.

A new effort by the Volcker Alliance is trying to shift that mind-set — and it’s looking to higher education as a key partner.

The organization, which is based in New York, has created a new project called the Government-to-University Initiative, and is building regional councils of local governments and colleges around the country to carry out the work. These G2U councils will develop strategies to pinpoint and publicize the career opportunities and skills needed by local, state, and federal governments in their region, encourage local colleges to prepare students for these careers and then assist the colleges in actually helping students land some of those jobs.

The alliance’s tie-in with universities makes sense considering that the president of the six-year-old organization is Tom Ross, the former president of the University of North Carolina system. The alliance is all about making government effective, and as Ross described it to me recently, the goal of G2U is “to enhance the pipeline into public service.”

Ross, like the namesake founder of the alliance, Paul A. Volcker, comes to this project following a long career in civic life. He was a judge before his stint as system president. And as we were talking about G2U, it became clear that he’s hoping the project might awaken a similar calling in today’s young people — and even the not-so-young.

“The words of John Kennedy rang in our ears,” he said of his generation. Today’s millennials and Gen Zers are also civic minded, and they’re worried about society too, he said. “We want them to see that being part of government is a way to fix it.”

“Talent pipeline” projects are all the rage these days, with groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and others working to engage employers from various industries with colleges to fine-tune academic offerings to better reflect changing needs. (As I noted in Career-Ready Education, more than 2,000 employers have taken part in the chamber foundation’s effort.) Surely government careers, and people inclined toward them, deserve the same attention.

Uphill fight

Still, as sympathetic as I am to G2U goals, I think the leaders of this project face an uphill fight.

For at least two generations, politicians have been making hay for themselves at the expense of public servants — often from the most elevated perches. I still vividly remember Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address, when he declared, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

And how often need a person read a story about the Trump administration overruling the advice of its professional staff on environmental matters, or punishing employees in science offices at the Department of Agriculture for not going along with a personnel plan that will require them to uproot their families from D.C. to Kansas, before questioning the merits of a career in the federal government.

Most people who work in government don’t work in Washington. According to the alliance, 85 percent of the federal workforce is based elsewhere, and nearly 18 million of the 20 million civilian government jobs are at the state and local level. But considering some of the talk coming from governors’ mansions in the recent years (Wisconsin’s Scott Walker a few years ago, Alaska’s Michael Dunleavy right now) clearly some of the same hostility can be found at the state level too.

Ross is well aware of the demoralizing effect of that rhetoric. “That’s something we have to overcome,” he told me.

Nonetheless, he’s optimistic that these local G2U efforts can have an impact. One reason is the regional focus. People there will be talking about careers that involve their own neighbors, he said, and in those situations, “you don’t see them with the same devil horns” as one might regard a faraway Washington bureaucrat.

Also, he knows the work is needed because he sees how technological changes, like sensors and artificial intelligence, are beginning to alter private-sector workplaces. “That’s going to come to government too,” he said. And when it does, “it’s going to require re-skilling, too.”

Ross hopes the councils — there are two up and running already, in Austin and in Kansas City, and he’s hoping to establish three to five more in the next 18 months — can evaluate governments’ talent needs methodically. Regions need to do the “same kind of sector analysis that we would be doing for the biotech industry,” he said, adding, “We need pathways into government for people who are mid-career” and people who don’t necessarily have four-year degrees.

He also hopes the project will lead to more cooperation between governments and college career centers. Most governments don’t recruit on campuses now, Ross said. “They don’t have a budget for it. They don’t know how to.”

Lessons from the first effort.

In Kansas City, where the nine-country effort is furthest along, community leaders have identified three initial projects: a talent-to-industry exchange that will identify the kinds of skills government agencies most need and pain points they have in finding people with them; a website that would serve as a one-stop recruiting portal for local, state, and federal jobs available in the region; and an academy to teach data skills to currently employed government workers.

The website would be designed with “what appeals to new grads” in mind, according to Lauren Palmer, director of local government services for the Mid-America Regional Council and point person for the project there.

The academic partners for the data academy, which could open in early 2020, are still being finalized, but already, Palmer told me, about a dozen local colleges have expressed interest in the overall effort. The idea for the data academy grew out of the early assessments of local needs. Lots of jurisdictions are collecting data, Palmer said, but “maybe one or two are really using that data in a meaningful way to really drive decision-making.”

Like Ross, Palmer is going into the project with eyes wide open. Young people are civic minded, but they have a “mistrust in government,” she told me. “We have an image and a branding challenge.” Still, as a 15-year veteran of public service herself, she sees opportunity to change the narrative if it can get better about “tying the work to the mission.”

For all my doubts, I see some promise in this project (and anyway, that feels better than wallowing in cynicism, especially after spending last weekend commemorating the moon landing and the marvel of what national purpose can achieve). After all, Palmer tells me that federal officials have promised to follow their progress on the website, and perhaps incorporate some of those innovations into its notoriously user-unfriendly hiring portal, USAJOBS.

Considering the tone of the 2020 election cycle already, I’m not at all confident that politicians will stop their vilification of government anytime soon. But maybe, just maybe, there’s room for Ross’s kind of thinking. As he put it: “Whether you want it to be big or you want it to be small, we all want it to work.” As this project points out, colleges have a key role to play in that.

And oh yeah, there’s that other point Ross made about a well-functioning government. “It’s also critical to democracy.” Hard to argue with that.

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