What Students Want in Their First Jobs, and How Government Can Deliver That

Jun 5, 2014

engagement process.jpgImproving Employee Engagement to Create Government Workplaces That Will Attract and Retain Young People 

We described what young people want in their first “real” jobs, based on Universum research. This year, Universum’s survey of more than 46,000 university students showed that students are looking for jobs that provide characteristics like work/life balance, job security, commitment to a cause, and a dynamic and respectful workplace.

Even with this important information, however, public sector employers face challenges in creating workplaces that incorporate these characteristics and will therefore attract and retain young talent. One proven way for government to meet this challenge is to improve the level of employee engagement. Higher levels of engagement create more attractive workplaces and translate into higher retention as well as improved individual and organizational performance.

The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board defines employee engagement as a heightened employee connection to work, the organization, the mission, or coworkers. Engaged employees believe their organizations value them, and in return, engaged employees are more likely to expend “discretionary effort” to deliver performance.

There is compelling evidence as to why government agencies, in particular, should care about employee engagement. The Gallup organization has systematically studied employee engagement, and its research reveals that high-engagement organizations are 20 percent more productive than their low-engagement counterparts, and also exceed low-engagement organizations in other critical areas such as customer satisfaction and employee retention.

In government, a Merit Systems Protection Board study of 37,000 federal government employees revealed that higher employee engagement correlated with:

  • Better success achieving strategic goals
  • Higher employee retention
  • Less sick leave and lost time due to work-related injury or illness
  • Fewer equal employment opportunity complaints

The Board has also developed an employee index that consists of 16 questions/statements divided into six engagement “driver” categories, listed below:

  • Pride in the work or workplace
  • Satisfaction with leadership
  • Opportunity to perform well at work
  • Satisfaction with recognition received
  • Prospects for future personal and professional growth
  • Positive work environment with some focus on teamwork

It is telling that these categories align with the factors many students identified as most important in Universum’s survey about job preferences: respect for people, a creative and dynamic work environment, ethical standards, leadership opportunities, training and development, a friendly work environment, and leaders who support development. In other words, government agencies that create the conditions for employee engagement will also be creating the conditions that will attract young people — and others — to government careers.

Creating an Engaged Workplace

But how does the public sector improve engagement in the highly visible and increasingly complicated world of government? A five-step engagement process model, shown above in a graphic, can produce powerful results in the form of improved employee and organizational performance.

The steps in the engagement process model

  1. Plan. Advance planning is important, not only for deploying an employee engagement survey, but also for taking action on the results. Planning includes deciding whether to survey, whom to survey, what questions to ask (i.e., develop an engagement survey or use an existing survey) and when and how to administer the survey. Planning should also include decisions about how survey results will be analyzed, reported and acted upon. The overall plan should include using research to objectively understand what people value in their careers, as well as a long-term engagement strategy that involves conducting regular follow-up surveys.
  2. Conduct an engagement survey. This step is the linchpin of the whole model. An employee survey is the most direct, and therefore most actionable, way to assess the level of employee engagement and identify what needs to be done to improve it. Each year, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducts the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey of federal employees. Some state and local governments also regularly conduct engagement surveys. These surveys provide agencies with a head start on the road to improving employee engagement. A government agency can develop and administer the survey internally or use an outside contractor. However, maximizing response rates is essential to generate candid and reliable survey data, so agencies must ensure that individual employee survey responses will be confidential and also be persistent in reminding employees to complete the survey.
  3. Report and analyze the results. There are many ways to report and analyze engagement survey results. Often, an engagement index is generated. This is a number that summarizes the overall level of engagement across the entire jurisdiction or agency. However, results should also be analyzed question by question to identify areas that need improvement, as well as strengths that should be maintained. This analysis can be done for the organization overall and for individual work units, locations, managers, and demographic groups. Analyzing survey results can also include more sophisticated analytics, such as benchmarking results against other organizations, identifying comparable drivers of engagement using third-party information like the Merit Systems Protection Board, and comparing the responses of managers/supervisors to the responses of front-line staff to identify disconnects. In addition to quantifiable multiple choice questions, most engagement surveys also allow space for employees to expand on their survey responses and offer additional insights. Analyzing these narrative comments can help identify the root causes of engagement issues that surveys reveal.
  4. Take action. Real change requires taking action on the engagement survey data. To do this, agencies should form action teams that analyze the data, collect additional data (often through focus groups), identify priorities for change, develop recommendations, generate leadership support for the recommendations, and then develop detailed implementation plans.
  5. Sustain engagement. Sustaining engagement means regularly measuring it through surveys, and also making engagement a long-term organizational priority. To do this, the entire organization must be held accountable for employee engagement. This includes leaders, managers, and supervisors. This strategy allows for leadership change without disrupting efforts to sustain engagement. To establish accountability and buy-in from leadership, link improved engagement levels to important agency results and outcomes.

What Some Government Agencies Have Done to Improve Engagement

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to attracting talent or improving engagement. Instead, each organization needs to assess its own workplace conditions and ability to attract and retain talent. This means analyzing data — both internal engagement results and objective third-party data — that can provide scope and depth to the unique value proposition of an agency and how it aligns with what the talent market wants. The fundamental message is that agencies should not administer the prescription before diagnosing the condition.

However, understand what some government agencies have actually done to improve engagement and create workplace conditions that will attract and retain new, young talent. Some examples are listed below:

  • Lead from the top. Virtually all engagement analyses, as well as Universum’s student data, reveal that strong leadership is critical. Senior leaders need to make engagement an organizational priority and model sound engagement practices themselves. In the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings of federal agencies (annually conducted by the Partnership for Public Service), “leadership” has been the No. 1 driver of employee satisfaction each time these rankings have been calculated. That’s why agencies that have focused on assessing and improving engagement have acted to build and upgrade leadership competencies, which underlie almost every driver of employee engagement. When managers and supervisors are engaged, the people who report to them are also more likely to be engaged. And, as the Universum data shows, young people entering the workforce listed leadership opportunities and training and development as highly desirable organizational characteristics.
  • Improve agency communication. Public-sector organizations should communicate throughout the entire cycle of planning, conducting, and acting on engagement surveys, and agencies also need to improve communication in general. Young people, in particular, value this transparency; strong communication gives employees the information they need to excel. Communication must go both ways. High-engagement agencies solicit opinions and innovative ideas from their employees and adopt the best ones. According to the Universum survey, young people want to work in organizations that are dynamic and allow them to be creative. Social media is a great channel for employees to suggest ways to improve operations and then engage in an online agency-wide conversation about vetting and improving on those ideas. This can be a particularly effective way to engage younger employees, who see these kinds of conversations as a way of life.
  • Improve the management of employee performance. According to the Board’s research, the main factor differentiating high-engagement agencies from low-engagement agencies is effective performance management, noting that “Every positive performance-management practice we reviewed is employed more widely in high-engagement agencies than in low-engagement agencies.” To be fully engaged, employees need to understand what their roles, responsibilities, and expectations are — and then receive regular and frequent feedback on their performance.
  • Provide work/life balance opportunities. The Universum survey results show that work/life balance is the overall top career goal of students who are about to enter the workforce. That’s why many public sector agencies are increasingly taking steps to help their employees balance work and personal lives. Providing work/life balance includes expanding the use of flexible work arrangements (e.g. compressed work weeks, flextime, part-time work, job sharing and telework), which are underused approaches to improve engagement (and therefore productivity) in government organizations.
  • Improve employee onboarding. Organizations only get one chance to make a good first impression. Yet most of us have stories of reporting for a new job when we were ready for the job, but the job was not ready for us. These experiences tend to sour the new employee’s perception of the job and his/her role in the organization. Have a systematic and comprehensive onboarding program, beginning when a new employee accepts the job offer (even before he/she reports) and continues through the new hire’s first year. This can dramatically improve engagement, productivity, and retention.
  • Clarify the line of sight to the organization’s mission. “Feeling dedicated to a cause” is one of the top three career goals for young people, according to Universum. Therefore, government agencies should capitalize on the public-service motivation that attracts talented people to government. To nurture and maximize employees’ commitment to the public service, agencies must provide clear lines of sight between their employees’ work and the agency’s mission and results. This can have a very positive impact on employee engagement.
  • Enhance employee prospects for career growth. Another important driver of employee engagement is providing opportunities to develop and grow. According to the Universum survey, young people prize career growth opportunities (e.g., “leadership opportunities” and “professional training and development”) very highly. As long as the agency is helping its employees develop their competencies, employees will tend to stay, but they will almost certainly look for other opportunities if their roles stagnate.
  • Recognizing employee contributions. Recognizing employee contributions and linking them to performance is also vital to keeping employees engaged. While this is important in all organizations, it is particularly important in government. With today’s tight public sector budgets, agencies need to find ways to recognize outstanding performance outside of financial remuneration. Sometimes this just means a smile and thank you for a job well done.

Government agencies are facing a talent crisis, and the stakes are high for the entire nation. The public sector must act now to be competitive for the best talent, including young people facing their first real job and career decisions. With data available that can provide a clear picture of what young people want in a job and how those line up with the drivers of employee engagement, agencies can create workplaces that will attract, develop, and retain great talent.

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