Millennials Are Attracted to Public Service, But Government Needs to Deliver

Jan 22, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 1.26.32 PMThis is not an easy time to be a public servant. Heated budget battles and rhetoric about the size, function, scope, and effectiveness of the public sector have generated criticism — not just of government, but also of the public servants who deliver government services.

It’s ironic that while the government is being criticized, Americans continue to ask public servants to solve some of our nation’s toughest problems: revitalizing the economy and putting people back to work, supporting a war that has stubbornly persisted for more than a decade, protecting the public, eliminating poverty, improving our education system, providing affordable health care, and so on.

This paradox — attacking public servants while also expecting them to solve problems other sectors can’t handle — presents an extreme challenge for government leaders and agencies as they strive to maintain or improve performance despite harsh criticism and shrinking resources.

The Government Talent Challenge

Adding to the challenge is the unavoidable reality that the public sector workforce is also poised for dramatic demographic changes. For years, we’ve been hearing about the imminent “retirement tsunami” of government baby boomers that will dramatically reshape the public sector workforce. To many, this has sounded like crying wolf because these massive retirements didn’t seem to materialize. However, facts are stubborn, and the fact is that the public sector workforce is older, on average, than the private sector workforce. Specifically:

  • According to the Census Bureau, the median age of government employees is 45.3 compared to the median age of 42.3 in the U.S. workforce as a whole
  • The average age of federal employees is even higher — 47
  • Sixty percent of federal employees are over the age of 45, compared to 31 percent in the private sector

As a result, the exodus of baby boomers from the workforce will inevitably occur first in government, and is already beginning to occur — finally. The title of an August 2013 Washington Post article, “Wave of retirements hitting federal workforce,” concisely sums it up.

The number of federal retirements has actually been on the upswing since 2009. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, more than 110,000 federal employees retired in fiscal 2012, and in the first four months of 2013, about 60,000 federal employees applied to retire — a 43 percent increase from the same period in 2012. The U.S. Government Accountability Office projects that 30 percent of the more than two million federal government employees will be eligible to retire in the next three years.

Public sector agencies must prepare to replace this departing talent. Even if retirees are not replaced on a one-to-one basis (for example, budget cuts may require agencies to keep some positions vacant), government must be positioned to attract new talent.

To do this successfully, agencies need to understand what the people they need to attract want in their jobs and careers, and then take action to create the kinds of recruiting and hiring systems, and workplaces, that will attract and retain the best talent. In particular, this applies to young people graduating from college and looking for their first “real” jobs.

What Young People Want in Their Careers

Universum, the global employer branding and research company, annually surveys college undergraduate and MBA students. In 2013, it surveyed more than 65,000 U.S. college students to find out what they are looking for as they enter the world of work, as well as their views on the attractiveness of specific employers.

Students were asked to identify up to three career goals. The top five goals (with percentages of students who selected them) were:

  1. Work/life balance (62 percent)
  2. Job security (57 percent)
  3. Dedicated to a cause or feel I am serving a greater good (49 percent)
  4. Be competitively or intellectually challenged (34 percent)
  5. Be a leader or manager of people (26 percent)

It also asked students to identify the most important “attractors” an employer could offer. The responses provided by at least 40 percent of students are:

  1. Respect for its people — 53.7 percent
  2. Secure employment — 52.5 percent
  3. Creative and dynamic work environment — 49.1 percent
  4. Professional training & development — 45.7 percent
  5. Friendly work environment — 45.6 percent
  6. Leaders who will support my development — 42.7 percent
  7. High future earnings — 42 percent
  8. Leadership opportunities — 40.9 percent

Students were also asked to identify up to five “ideal employers.” The good news for government is that federal agencies were among the most preferred employers for students across main fields of study: the FBI, National Institutes of Health, NASA, Department of State, and Peace Corps all ranked among the top ten, alongside companies like Google, Walt Disney Company, Apple, and Microsoft. Government employers are particularly popular with humanities and natural science students.

The results show that some government agencies are employers of choice for many young people. Perhaps some federal agencies appear to offer the job characteristics that most appeal to the millennial generation: secure employment, work-life balance, and an opportunity to make a difference. Many millenials have experienced or seen first-hand the employment instabilities in the private sector — caused by factors such as mergers, downsizing, layoffs, or companies going bankrupt — and have decided that their futures are more promising if they are not tied to the volatility of the private sector job market.

The most popular employers in both the public and private sectors continuously seek innovative ways to reach their target groups. Some government agencies have partnered with national organizations and associations to help understand why, and how, to heavily market themselves to the students they want to attract.

Despite the popularity of some government agency employers, too many still struggle to compete with private sector employers for talent on college campuses. In fact, despite the popularity of a select few government agencies, only seven percent of students surveyed chose only government agencies as their “ideal” employers. In other words, for the vast majority of students, government agencies are just one option among many.

In order to remain competitive and encourage students to choose the public sector over private employers, government agencies must continue to understand and respond to the needs and interests of their target talent groups. They need to create more robust, effective campus recruiting processes in order to attract and hire the best and brightest graduates from America’s universities.

Government agencies also need to find ways to cut through the negative rhetoric that always seems to cloud conversations about government, and instead emphasize the many positives about government service. The agencies that invest in their employer brands now will stay ahead of the curve, while others will struggle to attract the talent they — and our nation — so desperately needs.

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