This fall, when top college seniors are meeting with on-campus recruiters from the likes of McKinsey, Google and Goldman Sachs, a handful of ambitious young social entrepreneurs are hoping to lure them to a decidedly less flashy alternative: a post-graduate stint working for local or state government.
Two upstarts with similar names, Lead for America and Govern for America, plan to begin accepting applications this fall for a Teach for America-style fellowship starting in 2019. They hope to attract bright college graduates to such jobs as policy analyst, assistant to the county manager, and parks and recreation manager. The two-year commitments will expose them to the challenges and opportunities of careers in state and local government.
Lead for America will focus on helping municipal and county governments; Govern for America will look to place fellows in state-level jobs.
They’re not the only “for America” programs that, in naming themselves, have followed the lead of the well-known teaching fellowship. There’s also Venture for America, for entrepreneurs; Code for America, for techies; and Report for America, for journalists.
But organizers of both are hopeful that the time is right for their efforts to draw talented young people to the public sector. They aim to jump-start a generation of leaders in state and local governments, which have suffered from cutbacks in entry-level jobs, reduced training budgets and the perception that they are bureaucratic places to work. They also hope to help curb the brain drain from small towns to big cities by increasing the flow of top graduates to public service jobs.
“There’s a nationwide problem of a lack of faith in government,” said Joe Nail, 22, co-founder and chief executive of Lead for America and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yet “local government is an ideal exposure for people who want to go into public service.”
At the same time, interest in civic life appears to be growing among young people after a presidential election that produced a hyper-polarized electorate and a resurgence in political engagement.
“I’ve seen a lot of young people really, really frustrated by the division they’ve seen all over the country,” said Kinsey Morrison, a recent Stanford University graduate who founded Lead for America with Nail and Reed Shafer-Ray, a recent Harvard University graduate.
Both Lead for America and Govern for America want to play matchmaker between public-sector jobs and upcoming graduates who otherwise might not be aware of those opportunities.
“We’re not asking anyone to create new positions,” said Octavia Abell, who co-founded Govern for America and formerly worked in the administration of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D). What they’re asking, Abell said, is: “How can we find you the talent you need?”
One problem Nail said he wants to address is a lack of aggressive on-campus recruiting to make students aware of public-sector opportunities. Consulting firms, banks, tech companies and post-graduate programs such as Teach for America are on campus, talking to seniors, early in the academic year. But experts say local governments don’t engage in that sort of outreach and can be slow to make hiring decisions.
“For local governments, the process on hiring is so slow they lose the talent,” said Joshua Franzel, president and chief executive of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, which plans to research students’ employment preferences with Lead for America.
He said there certainly is a need for the program, especially in a time of low unemployment and budget cutbacks. A 2017 survey done by his organization found that recruitment and retention of qualified workers was considered an important issue by more personnel officials in state and local government — 91 percent — than any other issue.
Deb Jospin — an adviser to Lead for America and a former director of AmeriCorps, the national service program — said Nail and his co-founders identified a niche that programs such as AmeriCorps Vista, which focuses on poverty, don’t already fill.
“There’s not really a fellowship to have people working in the mayor’s office who are skilled in data or engineering,” she said. “They could bring a potential new skill set to the table and a new sensibility.”
The two start-up organizations have similar missions — to get young people into public service — and they plan to match fellows with nonpartisan jobs rather than positions as political aides to state lawmakers or local elected officials. Both also plan to provide weeks of summer training before the fellowships begin in 2019 and to organize mentorships, seminars and networking opportunities.
But there are differences. Both intend, for the most part, to fill existing government positions, but Lead for America plans to use private donations and other funding sources to supplement salaries for some fellows in cities or counties with severely limited budgets. Govern for America will not subsidize the pay of fellows placed in state jobs.
Neither has any commitments from state or local governments to hire the fellows it recruits. Nail said Lead for America has had more than 100 conversations with city managers, mayors and human resources managers, some of them in nine states other than North Carolina. It is also working on partnerships with groups such as International City/County Management Association and National League of Cities.
But in its first year, Lead for America hopes to place about 50 graduates — either in local government jobs in North Carolina, with recruitment focused on public and private colleges in that state, or, as “hometown fellows,” in jobs with local governments near their homes.
Evan Bonsall, a rising Harvard senior and a friend of Lead for America’s Shafer-Ray, is considering applying to the program. He said he would like to work with the city or county government in Marquette, Mich., on a project such as the development of the county-owned international airport. After an internship at the U.S. Senate last summer, he said, he isn’t a fan of Washington’s “transactional” political culture, but he still wants to go into public service and work in government.
“I’d been thinking about how could I go back to the Marquette area, and it wasn’t obvious to me,” Bonsall said.
Abell said she and Govern for America’s other founder have talked to eight states and hope to place about 30 fellows in three of them. They aim to do on-campus recruiting at several Ivy League and other northeastern schools this fall.
Experts in local government say the upstarts face a number of concerns, including how effective their recruits will be in complex work environments during fellowships that last only two years and how willing they will be to look past the pay and budget constraints. Typical entry-level jobs in state and local government might pay from $20,000 to $50,000, depending on the position and the geographic area, which is a far cry from the roughly $80,000 in base salary that McKinsey might pay entry-level business analysts right out of college, according to data on Glassdoor, a website where employees and former employees anonymously review companies.
Both will also need to do more fundraising. Lead for America is currently supported primarily by private donors, university fellowships, and community and other foundations. Govern for America has some seed funding through New York University’s Summer Launchpad Accelerator.
But the biggest challenge, said Richard Culatta, an adviser to Govern for America who is a former Obama administration official and former chief innovation officer for Rhode Island, may be getting state and local governments to give new graduates room to do important work, something more than just pushing paper. “If the states come in and say, ‘Your job is to take Form 37 and put it in pile B 300 times a day,’ they’re gone,” he said.