Ross King, executive director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), is doing something some think is a lost cause: trying to get students to consider a career -- or at least a career stop -- in public service. Through the newly created Civic Affairs Foundation, ACCG is fostering civic awareness among high school students and providing college students with internships in an effort to give them a deep understanding of the inner workings of county government. So far, the association has placed 188 interns in 50 Georgia counties.
“Only through the internship program are they able to sate the civic appetite they didn’t know they had,” says King. He explains that political science and public administration students tend to have some connection to the field, usually informed by a parent or mentor who worked in public service. Interns from other disciplines -- ranging from nursing, psychology and sociology to mechanical engineering, urban studies and Web design -- admit they didn’t know much about local government at first. “As we attract from other disciplines,” says King, “it is those students that are most likely to move into the government sector and stay engaged and involved because we have opened a door that in their minds hadn’t been opened before.”
But there’s a catch. “As they step into the workplace,” says King, “they tell us that local government positions are enticing and interesting, but not for a career.” Burdened by rising student debt in a still uncertain economy, “the students’ bottom line is to be gainfully employed.” King also says interns see government workplaces as more austere than private-sector companies. The interns wonder, he says, whether government is the best place for them to make the biggest difference, particularly when foundations and NGOs seem to be able to move more quickly and effectively.
That gives ACCG interns a lot in common with the 2,200 public employees surveyed earlier this year by Governing and the Institute for the International Public Management Association for Human Resources. The findings indicate that younger workers in government (34 years of age and younger) are more likely (47 percent) than their older colleagues (38 percent) to consider leaving their jobs if working conditions do not improve.
The study found that only 58 percent of all respondents reported being fully engaged. That group was three times likelier to report being very satisfied in their work and twice as likely to stay in their current job. Engaged employees were also 2.5 times likelier to feel they can “make a difference.” This is not the case for younger workers, who are less likely than the average employee to feel they can make a difference in the public sector.
King sees the same attitude prevalent among many of the association’s interns. He’s concerned we may be waiting in vain for the next great call to action. It has been a long time, after all, since President Kennedy’s inaugural call to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
“I don’t know how long we can wait for it,” says King, noting the yawning talent gap in public service as more and more public servants retire. But for generations that are instinctively social and continuously connected with one another, he holds out hope that they will serve as each other’s Camelot.
“It may not take Kennedy’s or Reagan’s call. It may come from students talking to students, and peers talking to peers, saying, ‘it’s time for us to step up.’ I think if they are given a chance, they themselves might issue the clarion call.”