Students angle for government jobs - but will influx last?

Suddenly, the federal government is cool again.

Ask high school freshmen clamoring to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or seniors who are reconsidering possible majors or enlisting with the Marines.

Watch undergrads line up at college career fairs to schmooze with recruiters from the Central Intelligence Agency or the US State Department. And visit Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where graduate students are angling for jobs at the Office of Homeland Security.

Since Sept. 11, polls show respect for government and interest in public-service careers among America's youth have hit levels rarely seen since President John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" of the 1960s.

And it's not just young people: Surveys show all Americans express greater confidence in national leaders since the attacks and are more likely to describe it as "our government" rather than "the government."

"The general devaluation of government since Vietnam and Watergate is temporarily on hold," says Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School. "We just don't know how long it will last."

That leaves everyone from federal hiring managers to civics teachers, who could barely interest most students in government a semester ago, scrambling to capitalize on this new respect.

Government agencies, including the CIA, began recruiting more aggressively on campuses even before the attacks, spurred by the prospect of half of executive-level federal employees becoming eligible to retire in the next five years. They tried slick brochures and a speedier hiring process.

But a boom economy in which the government simply couldn't match private-sector salaries left the agencies with mixed success. Students looking for exciting job opportunities in the post-cold-war world often signed up with international consulting firms and relief groups rather than the Foreign Service. Privatization and hiring freezes in domestic agencies drove others into better-paying jobs in business. And attack politics soured many potential hires on the idea of a Washington-based career.

At the Kennedy School, for example, three-quarters of graduates went to work for the government in 1980, yet in recent years, only a third have done so.

So the recent shift, driven by a slumping economy and a surge in patriotism among young Americans, is heartening news to those trying to hire the government's future workforce. Nationwide, the number of undergraduates who told pollsters from Harvard's Institute of Politics that they trust the federal government rose from 36 percent last year to 60 percent this fall. And a third of young people surveyed by the Council for Excellence in Government now express interest in federal service.

"Sept. 11 makes you look at the world and how you can change it," says Taylor Begley, a high school senior in Valley Stream, N.Y. Ms. Begley now wants to study political science in Washington when she graduates.

That shift in perspective has been particularly noticeable with the CIA, which reported a tenfold increase in applications - from 500 to 5,000 a week - immediately after the attacks.

Meanwhile, all federal agencies involved in national security and health, ranging from the FBI to the Customs Service, report greater interest as a result of the World Trade Center and anthrax attacks, says Kay Carol James, director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees federal hiring.

Schools at every level also feel the reverberations of Sept. 11:

• At the Kennedy School, the number of students applying for a presidential management internship in the federal government rose from 55 last year to 76 this fall. Students now say that all the sudden changes brought about by the terrorist attacks could bode well for careers with the government.

"It gives a wonderful opportunity for young people who are entering government, like myself, to shape policy," says Ran Xu, a Kennedy School first-year student who will work for the State Department after graduation.

• Last year, dotcoms were the destination of choice at the University of Texas at Austin's career fair. But this fall, recruiters from the State Department's Foreign Service boasted the longest lines.

Career services director Glen Payne at UT's College of Liberal Arts says a slowing economy explains some of the interest in government work, but a new desire among students to serve their country motivates it as well.

• In North Carolina, student Theresa Viera at Cary High School thought she'd be a lawyer one day. Now, she wants to join the Marine Corps, whose soldiers, usually based at Camp Lejeune only an hour away, recently deployed inside Afghanistan.

"I want to get out there with my rifle," Theresa says. Her classmate Jenny Wong hopes to pilot fighter planes.

• Rosana Zamora, the student commander of her Houston high school's Junior Air Force ROTC unit, says at least 10 classmates have asked to join the program since Sept. 11. Participants study aviation and leadership, drill several times each week, and wear uniforms to school every Thursday.

The rows of ribbons on her uniform once drew odd stares, but now, Rosana says classmates tell her, "Man, that's cool, I want to get in."

But while educators and federal human-resource managers welcome the government's new popularity, they fear it will diminish as the World Trade Center attacks fade from memory and the economy picks up - unless they change their traditional way of doing business.

"We need a full court press by all of us to take advantage of this new interest," says Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio. That means recruiting as aggressively as private employers and convincing students that the government is a place where they can make an impact, he says.

For example, the OPM has recently mailed letters to the editors of college newspapers, created a new recruiting video, and removed government jargon from its website, studentjobs.gov.

There were other efforts already under way. The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPA) launched a public relations campaign two years ago aimed at college students called, "Look Ma! I'm a Bureaucrat."

NASPA distributed a glossy pamphlet depicting young people doing exciting government work, such as directing NASA's computer crime division or coordinating aid for the homeless. Unfortunately, some of the employees shown in the pictures jumped to the private sector before undergraduates ever saw it.

Even some individuals have gotten in on the act. This year, businessman Samuel Heyman, who started his career as a Justice Department attorney under Robert Kennedy, donated $25 million to launch a new Partnership for Public Service. Mr. Heyman says he hopes more advertisements and research about better hiring practices can help "restore public confidence and prestige."

President Bush is also doing some cheerleading for the cause. Last month, he urged every school in the country to invite military veterans to speak with students as part of an initiative called "Lessons for Liberty."

Mr. Bush told students at a Rockville, Md., high school, "We need a new generation to set examples of its own, examples in service and sacrifice and courage."

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this story from North Carolina.

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