Jennifer Mills was thrilled the day she opened the PDF file and saw her name listed. She — along with 600 others from an original pool of 12,000 — had been named a finalist in the Presidential Management Fellows Program, an elite opportunity for those with graduate degrees to enter public service.
“The sheer quantity of being chosen in the top 5 percent in my country was overwhelming, but even more was the quality of individuals who were chosen with me,” Mills said.
Unfortunately for Mills, and many of her PMF Program class, the grim reality is that they may not have the chance to work in government. In just a few weeks — on April 8 — everyone who has not found a full-time paid government position with the PMF Program will lose their finalist status.
The sequester, last year’s government shutdown, hiring freezes and agency budget cuts have contributed to the lack of job openings for PMF finalists. Many apply for spots only to be told the job position is going unfilled or funding is no longer available. Since many PMF finalists apply in their final year of graduate school with the expectation of landing a job after graduation, many are unemployed or have given up and found work elsewhere.
“A lot of PMFs have been strung along through the process,” said Mills, who has stopped looking for employment through PMF and has recently accepted a job at an international development nonprofit. “It shouldn’t be called a ‘fellowship,’ but I guess ‘Presidential Management Opportunity’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
The PMF Program has a competitive application process, administered through the Office of Personnel Management. Graduate students — and recent advanced-degree graduates — apply in November, undergoing a three-hour screening test that whittles the application pool from 12,000 down to 1,600 semifinalists. The semifinalists undergo a five-hour oral assessment, which includes group exercises, in-person interviews, a mock news conference and essays. Finalists are announced in April. In previous years, PMF finalists have been invited to a job fair, where they could speak with agencies about employment. This year, in lieu of the in-person job fair, the process was conducted online through a virtual job fair, which one finalist described as “dreadful.”
The PMF Program has never had a 100 percent placement rate; the average has hovered around 60 percent since 2007. But that pales compared to the dismal placement rate for the 2013 class. As of late February, according to the PMF website, only 215 of the 668 finalists from the Class of 2013 had found appointments — about 32 percent. Some, like Mills, have given up.
One finalist, a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, spent six months unemployed before giving up his search for a placement and accepting a job with an international development organization. “When I went into the PMF interview process, it was one of those moments that verified how much I wanted to be in public service. I put all of my eggs into the [PMF] basket,” he said. In searching for a position, he met with almost 100 people, including 35 people at the State Department, his preferred agency. Despite enjoying the meetings, he was disheartened by the process. “I invested so much time and energy, much of it was a wasted effort.”
More than one finalist told CQ Roll Call about the poor organization of the job-seeking process. PMF finalists have access to a job-posting website called the Talent Acquisition System. But only a few jobs are listed, and some of those were missing links, lacked closing dates and had no contact info.
Those seeking assistance are left to their own devices. One finalist, a Marine Corps veteran and law school graduate, said he tried to contact the PMF support office and no one had gotten back to him — ever. “We don’t even have a phone number to call at PMF, just an email address. And there is no response from email,” he said.
OPM, in a belated effort to help the hundreds of stranded finalists find placements, will be conducting an in-person job fair for Class of 2013 finalists in early March. In an email obtained by CQ Roll Call, an agency asks all bureaus to participate in the job fair: “due to the recent sequestration and government shut-down there are several 2013 finalists who have not been placed.”
While this job fair may help some, for others it comes far too late. And finalists who live outside the metro area are responsible for their own transportation and lodging to attend the job fair. CQ Roll Call repeatedly reached out to OPM for comment. After declining to comment for several days, OPM referred to a letter announcing a job fair dated Feb. 19, several days after CQ Roll Call’s initial inquiry.
“Ultimately, I thought that having gone through the process with OPM, and having gotten into this widely acknowledged and prestigious program, that there would be more support,” said the veteran finalist. “Even if they want to extend the deadline, I certainly don’t want to count on it. I don’t want to be hitting refresh on the Talent Acquisition System for another year.”
Members of PMF’s Class of 2013 have only several more weeks to find positions. Those who do will enter between the GS-9 and GS-13 levels and in two years will complete the program to earn the designation of Presidential Management Fellow.
But for the more than 400 PMF finalists — 200 of whom are veterans — their PMF experience and subsequent unemployment could be for naught if they’re not hired by the deadline.
Mills has organized a petition to OPM requesting a one-year deadline extension. More than 250 PMF Class of 2013 finalists have signed on. The class has reached out to members of Congress, as well, asking them to contact OPM on their behalf. The response received thus far from OPM has been paltry. Mills received an email acknowledging receipt of her message, and the Feb. 19 letter announcing the coming job fair and a pre-career fair workshop. Mills acknowledges this will be too late for many people who have given up and accepted other employment.
The PMF’s extensive alumni network is getting involved on the Class of 2013’s behalf. Mills and alumnus Jeremy Furrer (Class of 2011) are organizing a 24-hour push on Tuesday to mobilize all PMF alumni to contact OPM Director Katherine Archuleta and Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley (a PMF alumnus from the Class of 1982) with a request to extend the 2013 PMF class’s deadline.
Furrer said the PMF alumni network is eager to get involved and help the Class of 2013. “We’ve all benefited so much from the program,” he said. “At some point, the alumni have to get involved and say something. PMF is an opportunity that only comes once in a while. It’s tough to get into. To get to the point where you’re a finalist, there is the belief that you have a good chance for a position. And it hasn’t transpired the way it has in past years.”
There’s still a little more than six weeks for PMF Class of 2013 finalists to find employment. For some, OPM’s eleventh-hour job fair could prove fruitful. Others will see the window close on their chance to become a Presidential Management Fellow.
“Even with low morale, this PMF finalist group has continued to work together to help one another,” Mills said. “They have not given up and have truly showed the characteristics this government should be looking for in future leaders of this country. It is unfortunate this talent will be missed out on.”