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As the nation waits in anticipation for a resolution to the longest government shutdown in ­­­U.S. history, calls for fresh faces and new ideas are on the rise. But public-sector leaders under 30 -- such as newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, the nation’s youngest-ever congresswoman -- are rare. What can be done to attract more young people to public service?

The Sanford School of Public Policy and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service convened a workshop on Jan. 18 to address that question. Members of the Duke community, federal human resource experts and nonprofit leaders gathered to discuss the importance of generating a pipeline of young talent for careers in the federal government and action steps for overcoming key barriers.

A Partnership for Public Service report details how a series of barriers from both the government side and the university side has led to just 6 percent of permanent full-time federal employees being under 30.

man in suit sitting at table
Paul Crews, director of the Durham Veteran Affairs Health Care System, listens during a discussion at the Talent Pipeline for Federal Public Service workshop. Thirty people from Duke, federal agencies and nonprofits gathered at the Sanford School on Jan. 18, 2019.

Changing that is essential for the future of our country, and an important area for the Sanford School to provide leadership, said Dean Judith Kelley.

“Duke attracts some of the best and brightest students on the planet, and our government is in need of bright people. The government is the foundation of our democracy and if we don't have a pipeline of talented people into it, we are in dire straits. I think as a university, we have a responsibility to try to foster that interest.”

At Duke, students can easily access information about careers in the private sector, particularly in consulting and banking, Kelley said. “I think we need to figure out how to get in that conversation earlier so that students also think about, ‘How could I take my talents for the public good?’”

Part of the problem is perception, said John Koskinen, 48th Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. “Too often the image of public servants at any level is, ‘Well you know, it’s kind of dull and they don't work hard and it’s not a good place to spend your time,’” The shutdown has helped remind Americans that stereotype isn’t true, he said.

Strategy discussions during the workshop varied from how to better inform students of the available opportunities, formalizing relationships between Duke and federal agencies, and speeding up the federal hiring process. “We had a very experienced, broad range of thoughtful, intelligent people with really good ideas and insights,” Koskinen said.