Federal agencies looking to attract the next generation of technically-inclined leaders have their work cut out for them, but may also have a window of opportunity, according to new analysis of college students’ plans released this week by the Partnership for Public Service.

Based on a survey of 35,401 students from 599 colleges and universities across the nation, the Partnership found that just 6% of students intend to work in federal, state or local government–and the percentage was even lower among students majoring in technical areas.

The outlook comes at a time when President Obama is trying to boost the number of students and educators committed to science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) disciplines. The president planned to use a White House science fair today as a backdrop for announcing $100 million in new public and private sector spending over the next decade to help train educators, according to White House officials.

During the White House event today, Obama stressed the need for the nation to raise up a new generation of workers with scientific and technical skills, or face the prospects of turning over “that work to others, to emerging countries, who have seen from the outside what science and technology can do for a society.”

But even as the Obama administration looks to expand the supply of technically skilled workers, the federal government, which depends on many of those skills, continues to face an uphill battle recruiting them, according to Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service.

The proportion of students expressing intentions to pursue work in federal, state or local government had been on the rise, climbing from 8.4% in 2008 to 10.2% in 2009, McManus noted. But then they began sliding in 2010, to 7.4%, and fell again this year, he said. And only 2.3% of students expressed specific plans to work for the federal government–the first time a federal-only breakout was reported.

The report, based on a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers last spring, found:

  • 29.7% of students planned to seek employment in the private sector
  • 27.0% planned to go to graduate school
  • 17.7% planned to work in nonprofit or teaching fields
  • 23.3% planned to enter the military or explore other options

However, students majoring in technical fields appeared even less likely to pursue a federal career.

The survey revealed that among STEM majors, 36.7% planned to move into the private sector, 33.9% planned to go on to graduate school, but only 3% planned to work for the federal government.

McManus attributed part of the decline in intentions to work for the government to “some of the fed-bashing” that has been reported in the media.

“When you hear negative stories about federal workers–being paid too much, or government being too large–it does make it harder to recruit people into government,” he said.

Economic conditions and salary expectations are another factor, the study found.

Two thirds of students said they worried about finding a job after graduation. Students taking federal jobs can generally anticipate making between $34,075 and $42,209 to start, in the Washington, D.C. area, the study noted. About a third of students who major in STEM fields, however, expect to make $60,000 per year coming out of school.

And many students claim that

McManus acknowledged the implications for federal hiring managers and human resources professionals “looks pretty bleak,” but saw opportunities for federal hiring managers, based on what students said mattered most to them about their first job out of college.

Among 15 characteristics most important to students, opportunity for personal growth ranked highest, followed by job security and good benefits. All three are generally seen as selling points for federal positions.

“People want to look at ways that they…can grow,” McManus said. At the same time, students rated “clearly defined expectations” very low on the list. “They’re saying, “Let us figure it out,’ ” when it comes to work. “It’s an interesting story on how government needs to position itself,” he said.

Most Important First-job Characteristics
Percentage of top two responses
Opportunity for personal growth 18.5%
Job security 14.4%
Good benefits 10.7%
High starting salary 8.9%
Improve the community 8.4%
Friendly co-workers 7.9%
Diversity 4.5%
Close to home 4.3%
Recognition 4.1%
Rapid advancement 4.0%
Recognized brand 3.9%
Self expression 3.8%
Clearly defined expectations 2.9%
Casual atmosphere 2.1%
Diverse and tolerant 1.4%

A copy of the Partnership for Public Service findings is available here.