Throughout the school year, John Mondragon and his colleagues fan out to college campuses around the country, looking for soon-to-be graduates...

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WASHINGTON — Throughout the school year, John Mondragon and his colleagues fan out to college campuses around the country, looking for soon-to-be graduates to take jobs with the federal government.

Their pitch would seem to be attractive: competitive salaries, excellent benefits, job security and rewarding work helping people — in short, a lot of the things many students say they want in a first job.

But although candidates form long lines for corporate recruiters at other job-fair booths, they often pass by Mondragon and his government colleagues. He explains it this way: “The private sector has more flash and technology” and applicants “are attracted to the glitz.”

In the eyes of many young people entering the work force, the federal government is glitz-deprived. Whereas the business world and nonprofits seem to offer the allure of challenges and opportunities, government agencies are perceived as mired in red tape and boredom.

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“At almost any career fair I’ve been to, the government booths are the ones where the recruiters are generally just sitting there,” said Bob Richard, associate director of the careers office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Sometimes they stand in front of the booth and try to flag people down.”

Although many federal officials contend that the image is inaccurate, they know they have a growing problem. More than half of the country’s 1.9 million civil servants will be eligible for retirement in the next few years.

In a 2004 survey of young Americans by the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government, which encourages public-sector employment, 16 percent described working for the federal government as “very appealing.”

That means a lot of jobs will be hard to fill — a prospect that concerns recruiters and hiring managers and is a good sign for job seekers.

“I can tell you that the federal government in general finds it more difficult to attract some of the younger applicants when we’re competing with private-sector companies,” said Mondragon, director of human resources at the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office.

The challenge is to make the government an “employer of choice, not an employer of last choice,” said Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a Washington think tank that examines government management.

To entice prospective employees, the government is looking outside for assistance. The Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit founded in 2002 to encourage Americans to work for the government, has started several initiatives to help federal agencies.

In conjunction with the government’s Office of Personnel Management, it runs “Call to Serve,” a network of 552 colleges, 62 federal agencies and 11 partner organizations to recruit young people to government work.

During the last year, the partnership joined with three agencies — Federal Student Aid, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) — to assess and revise their recruiting and hiring processes.

From rewording job announcements to redesigning agency Web sites, the project, dubbed “Extreme Hiring Makeover,” ignored no detail.

The three agencies, which have begun implementing the procedures, volunteered for the makeover.

“We are shaping the future in national defense and nonproliferation,” said Linton Brooks, administrator of the Department of Energy’s NNSA. “Young people out of college should be excited by that. We are giving people very important responsibilities relatively early in the careers. But the traditional job announcements don’t convey that.”

Even if a particular listing intrigues potential candidates, the application process may deter them. Applying for a position at Federal Student Aid used to take 114 steps. The “extreme makeover” cut that to 53.

It’s a different, and much simpler, story in the private sector.

“Let’s say you want to work for sales and trading or corporate finance with Goldman Sachs,” said Samer Hamadeh, co-founder of, an online career-information service. “You only apply once, and [the human resources department] facilitates that for you.”

The reputation of government work is discouraging as well. Students “can’t stand how bureaucratic and change-resistant it is,” DeMaio said. “They are looking for challenge, recognition and reward. Government agencies must change the work culture and environment.”