12/09/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Inspiring the young to public service

President John F. Kennedy inspired a young generation to public service in the early 1960s, talking about the "honor" that federal employees should feel by serving their country and using their talents to "contribute to the direction and success of this free society." President Obama sought to do the same in 2008 with a promise to reinvigorate faith in our government and to make federal service "cool" again.

While Kennedy's message resonated five decades ago, the times are quite different today. Kennedy helped change the face of the government, but the millennial generation--those in their 20s and early 30s--currently represent only 8 percent of all federal employees while making up 36 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

A 2013 poll by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that just 5.7 percent of college students said they plan to work in government after graduation, compared to 35 percent who prefer the private sector and 18.4 percent who are interested in teaching and in the nonprofit sector. The survey did not ask the students whether their interest was in local, state or the federal government.

All this suggests that the federal government has some work to do if it wants to attract larger numbers of top college graduates. Yet, it also presents an opportunity for federal leaders to find ways to accentuate the positive aspects of public service and lay a solid foundation for the future.