Two senior Federal officials doing vital work on climate issues are preaching to the younger generation a message to join the government workforce so they can help stave off the worst outcomes of climate change – despite what one called the “crap money.”

Jennifer Gerbi, Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) acting director, and Varun Sivaram, senior advisor to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, recently joined the public sector after bountiful careers in industry. But what drew them to the Federal government wasn’t the money, it was the mission.

ARPA-E employees are attracted to the organization because they “are really driven by the mission of the agency, and we want to be able to really make a difference,” Gerbi said at a Washington Post Live event on Nov. 2. “For me, the main reason why I came was the freedom that we have to pursue what is the right thing that we should do, what is the right problem to solve.”

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Sivaram added why he decided to join the Federal workforce after holding the position of chief technology officer at India’s largest renewable energy company: “This is a once in a generation opportunity to reset how the United States was viewed on the world stage on climate change.”

The Federal workforce gap – especially in cyber – has been steadily growing. It currently sits at over 700,000 positions that need to be filled. Alongside that, one factor that is deterring some of the younger generation from public service is non-competitive government salaries. President Biden recently approved a 4.6 percent Federal pay raise for employees in an attempt to bridge the substantial pay gap with the private sector.

But Feds don’t work for the government because of the money, Gerbi said, they come because they have a passion for the mission. But to keep that talent, agencies need to start asking about, and listening to, what their employees need.

Increasing flexibility with remote work is one way to attract and keep young workers, Gerbi said, “but also listening and asking people what they need. What would it take for you to be able to do this job,” she continued, “I really do think you have to listen and ask people: how can we make this work for you?”

When asked what he would tell young people to encourage them to go into Federal government Sivaram said: “Particularly in our field, in climate, it’s so important to have dedicated public servants from a diverse range of backgrounds,” he continued, “If you are a young person, the generational challenge of our time is climate change. This is an opportunity to step in.”

“You may not get paid very much in the government, but the impact you have in the years you do spend in the government can be outsized,” Sivaram said. “The problem is not going away, but it’s one, that with the right set of minds in government, we really have a chance of solving.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.