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A Career in Government – Easier Said Than Done

Many Americans of all ages who have or want a career in management are busy re-evaluating their status as industry after industry falls on hard times.

With auto, retail, advertising, banking and other industries reeling, lots of execs (and wannabe execs) are turning their curiosity to Government.

It's a smart idea in terms of opportunity, security and benefits. In fact, the opportunity – on paper – is huge.

The Partnership for Public Service (a non-profit committed to attracting more young people to government service) estimates that 600,000 federal jobs need to be filled in the next four years – a good thing for careerists and taxpayers who want better government. At the same time, there are big cultural and bureaucratic forces that could stymie both parties.

The White House budget report for 2010 spends six pages on improving the federal talent pool by embracing the need to "acquire, develop, engage, compensate, recognize and effectively retain talented employees."

Obama appointees like Budget Director Peter Orzag are calling on agency leaders to improve employee satisfaction and engagement – and to upgrade hiring practices.

I was in Washington last week meeting with top human capital officers at several federal agencies. The good news is they are getting the message and working hard to improve recruiting and retention practices. The bad news is that they face monumental, internal and external challenges. The hiring process, mandated by Congress and a sprawling bureaucracy, is onerous and offputting to many candidates – especially the most ambitious. While the military deploys best practices in recruiting and engagement, the civilian side is sorely lacking and wildly uncoordinated, even within certain agencies. But, as the Washington Post recently noted, political appointees may not be motivated to fight for big cultural and institutional changes since that's time-consuming and they typically only stay for 18-24 months.

President Obama and the Democratic Congress will grow the federal government and Uncle Sam needs new blood.

The government needs well-educated young workers at the beginning of their careers and it needs professional class managers and executives from the private sector who can bring best practices and cutting-edge knowledge to bear in service of our nation.

The job market is such that Uncle Sam is in the driver's seat but to acquire the best and the brightest, things will have to change in Washington. There's a new sheriff in town, and lots of new deputy sheriffs, but they will have to move fast and be bold. Otherwise, they will have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity. That would be bad for careerists – and taxpayers – alike.

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Erik Sorenson is CEO of Vault, the Web’s most comprehensive resource for career management and job search intelligence. Vault provides top talent with the insider information they need to make critical career decisions. An Emmy award-winning media industry veteran, Erik served as president of the MSNBC cable news channel through 2004. His experience spans radio, local and network broadcast television, cable and syndicated TV, and the Web.

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