May 02, 2023
I was very honored to be invited to be part of the Founders Committee for the National Consortium for Public Health Workforce Development in 2019 and to be able to contribute the job seeker perspective. As the Assistant Dean of Career Services at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, I see daily how students and alumni of the school are making career choices — and the factors that influence those choices, including the hiring practices of different employers.
In fact, one of my roles is to gather employment outcomes data each year, not only because it is a requirement for accreditation by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), but because it is something that current and prospective students want, and deserve, to know.
In reviewing these data each year, I have noted that an increasing percentage of our graduates are seeking jobs in the private and nonprofit sectors. Meanwhile, a consistent, but relatively lower percentage — 12 to 15 percent — are looking for jobs in governmental public health.
Why is this happening? It’s a question of such interest to me that it has become the topic of my doctoral dissertation. I want to understand the employment outcomes of public health school graduates and the competition among employers to hire them.
Public health students are a very diverse group, so their employment outcomes are diverse as well. Some graduates go into public health because they are interested in a particular mission, topic, or type of work. And sometimes those types of work are not an essential role of government, so students turn their attention to the private sector. But even students who really do want to work in governmental public health can encounter barriers to joining that workforce.
Because of where I work and the work that I do, I’m able to see how the private sector handles their recruitment processes differently than the government. The primary difference is that the government application process is often more complicated than it is in the private sector. Applicants must create a new type of resume that they don’t need for the private sector; sometimes they must sit for a civil service exam. It’s more complicated, it’s different, and it takes longer. In fact, I have talked to several students who were on the path to a government job offer but took a private sector or nonprofit position because they were offered a job with an immediate start date. They couldn’t wait any longer.
Most of the time, for government recruitment presentations to potential applicants, 75-80 percent of the presentation is spent on the civil service hiring process, the resume format, the different hiring authorities, and how to structure your application. At most, 20 percent is spent on touting the mission-driven nature of the work and how exciting it is. Government recruiters do not talk as much as they could about the opportunities for promotion and growth even though government has notable opportunities for both, as well as opportunities to make a huge impact that you cannot make in other sectors.
When a consulting company, a health insurance company, a tech company or even a hospital comes to recruit, they spend 80 percent of the time talking about why they’re so awesome, what they do and what the mission is. They will talk about opportunities to get promoted and to be creative, and how they support people. There may be a presentation slide at the end about how you apply. That’s it. Even with a consulting firm that uses a case interview process, they may do an entire workshop on case interviews, but there will still be a point during the workshop when they talk about the impact the company is making, their corporate social responsibility, and the pathways and opportunities for promotion they offer.
Very few people who work in government human resources are trained to do marketing, so they are not “marketing” the unique benefits of working in government public health. Instead, the emphasis is on having them screen applicants to ensure that they match position requirements, such as years of relevant experience. It’s also a humility issue. People who work in public health care are accustomed to being the unsung heroes. They’re not taught to talk about how incredibly important and crucial it is to go work in your local health department. It’s not just public health; it’s a problem for government overall.
This year, we had the largest incoming class since the founding of our school 100 years ago; we also had the largest ever pool of applicants. (I’m pretty sure that it’s what they call the “Fauci effect.”) After more than a year and a half of a major public health crisis, people have been both inspired and horrified by what happened and what continues to happen — and they want to help.
Through the work of the National Consortium for Public Health Workforce Development, we hope that more of them will choose to do so by joining the government public health workforce.
Jan 19, 2023