Millennials & Gov: Where’s the Love?

Uncle Sam continues to face a quandary over how to attract a new generation of young people to public service.

One perplexing problem is how to rebuild plummeting trust in government among the all important millennial demographic, also known as Generation Y. This generation will ultimately comprise a majority of the U.S. labor force, yet too many of these young people appear apathetic to public service.

In fact, Gen Y’s trust in government has fallen to new lows, according to recent national polling by the Harvard University Institute for Politics.

  • “The Institute’s spring poll shows 18- to 29- year-olds’ trust in public institutions at a five-year low – and their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher,” says Harvard Institute of Politics Director Trey Grayson.
  • Harvard Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe observes: “It’s been clear for some time now that young people are growing more disillusioned and disconnected from Washington. There’s an erosion of trust in the individuals and institutions that make government work.”

Gaping Disconnect

Uncle Sam needs millennials to fill jobs and bring valuable new skills to public service. Millennials need jobs because their collective unemployment rate is more than double that of the entire nation.

So why the gaping disconnect?

Some reported reasons why millennials are indifferent to working in government are based on a confluence of factors including, but not limited to, the following:

  • An antiquated and inflexible bureaucratic work culture.
  • An overly cumbersome hiring process.
  • Not enough focus on innovation and experimentation.
  • Too much of a “punch the clock” management mentality.

Ask a Millennial…

In order to further address this topic I went directly to the source. I reached out to multiple millennials. Here’s what two of them had to say:

On Twitter @AskAMillennial says:

  • “Messaging to Millennials has to be clear, concise and uncluttered – we live in a world of short attention spans and 140 characters. The government seems to do anything but that.”

Ryan Arba, a GovLoop member and employee for the State of California, says:

  • “Most jobs in government today are organized around a Time & Activity framework. Government leaders should consider reframing their positions toward a Tour of Duty model. For example, instead of marketing your job opening as a set of activities that are completed on a daily/weekly basis, the job could be reframed as a 1-2 year project with a measurable outcome.”

New Strategies Needed

While current recruitment methods may be working to some extent, it should be obvious by now that more refined strategies are needed to show millennials why government is a good fit for them.

Mika Cross, an award-winning workplace transformation strategist and work/life thought leader, recommends the following:

  • “Find the message that best communicates why Gen Y workers will fall in love with your agency, your mission and your workplace. What’s the one reason why you get up every day and put your best foot forward?”
  • “That’s the message you need to convey using a myriad of platforms — social media and outreach that connects with schools and universities across the country. Find current feds who can serve as ambassadors for public service.”

Cross, who currently works for OPM as a Presidential Management Council Interagency Fellow, further suggests:

  • “Outreach targeted to the parents and families of millennials is equally important to showcase the flexible and supportive workplace programs that are in place to support what this generation values: family, community and social connections.”

She advises federal agencies to avail themselves to the online HR services OPM offers in order to increase millennial hiring.

From Outside-In to Inside-Out

In essence, public sector agencies need to better showcase themselves to young people and maximize social media outreach to enhance engagement.

Millennials and college career counselors need to be more aware of agency internships, fellowships, honor programs, and other avenues for young people to get their feet in the door of government – such as OPM’s Pathways program.

Lastly, Gen Y needs to be persuaded that, despite their distrust of government, they can make much more positive change in the public sector from the inside-out compared to the outside-in.


NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public or private sector employer, organization or related entity.


David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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David B. Grinberg

Thank you for the exemplary feedback, Katharine, and for sharing the interesting web links. Your comments are appreciated!

David B. Grinberg

As noted above, millennials need good jobs. The public sector has them. So why the gaping disconnect between college grads and Gov? Where’s the love? Message to millennials, help gov help you!

USA Today reports, Job outlook for 2014 college grads puzzling

  • “Seniors who graduate over the next several weeks are poised to be yet another product of a depressing economic cycle that isn’t their fault but that they may never fully recover from.”
  • “They and other recent graduating classes entered college and subsequently the labor market amid a panoply of converging circumstances that will inevitably set them back: rising tuition, their parents’ decreasing ability to pay that tuition, fewer jobs after graduation and lower wages for the jobs that are available.”
  • “High unemployment for young adults during and after recessions is not a new phenomenon. Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by the EPI show that the unemployment rate for those under 25 is typically at least twice the national average, because they are so new to the job market, lack experience and may be the first let go when a company has to downsize in hard economic times.”
Mark Hammer

A question: Are there agencies, and their associated missions/mandates, that don’t have a problem recruiting millenials? There will be some soirts of work that retain appeal for many, even while many other types of work lose their attraction. So who is catching those fish? Maybe whatever it is that appeals to young graduates there can be ramped up a little in those agencies that aren’t pulling them in?

David B. Grinberg

Thanks, as always, Mark for sharing your valuable feedback.

Regarding your question, I believe most public sector agencies in the USA would agree that recruiting young people to public service simply make good business. This should be a strategic human capital imperative not only to fill jobs, but also because Gen Y brings new high-tech skills and more efficient work methods to gov.

Personally, I believe that on a macro level the public sector should launch a unified outreach and education campaign to recruit more millennials. The themes could be two-fold:

  • First, young people need good jobs. Gov has good jobs to fill.
  • Second, serve your country by making positive change from the inside-out.

I think the any mass PR/outreach/education campaign should contain a narrowly tailored message for young people about why public service is important to the future of America — their future and that of their children. Remember gov’s “We Want You!” campaign featuring Uncle Sam? Perhaps something similar with a modern twist focusing on innovation would be effective.

On a micro level, I think public sector agencies need to assess how their mission and work specifically appeals to young people (or why it should) — and drive that message home. I like Mika’s example of millennial gov ambassadors whom can speak directly to their own generation through PSAs and visits to college campuses.

Moreover, as Mika recommends, any campaign should maximize a diverse range of social media platforms — including non-traditional ones — because that’s where millennials can be found.

What do you think, Mark? Any other suggestions or potential solutions?

Again, remember this:

Julie Chase

. So why the gaping disconnect between college grads and Gov?
1. USA Jobs. Cumbersome…..and it takes forever to hire. Millennial are not sitting by thd or waiting for an email. They have moved on. I know a college grad who applied for a job for NAVSEA command on the east coast last November! The NOR was sent on March 7th of 2014….”eligible”. Hasn’t heard a word since. So how long should this college grad wait to find out if they got the job or not?
2. Downsizing……hiring freezes. …4 yr pay freezes…..furloughs. ….higher F EHB premiums with less coverage.
3. A STEM graduate is offered GS5 pay or any other new BS degree…..private sector offers more. I say GS5 because I know what they are offered at DoN MC east coast.
4. Limited….unreliable…antiquated IT.
5. Limited funding for professional training.
6. Limited input in mission…policies…procedures. ….because your series…your grade pretty much writes your PD. Policies and procedures have been handed down from on high and can only be changed and/or amended from on high. Your mission has been given to you. If you truly niece for example that there is a better way to procure items for your organization. ….it will not change. You will buy…pay for whatever you need they way it is written in the procurement order.

Julie Chase

some smart phone.

1. Millennial are not sitting by the phone or waiting for an email.

6. If you truly believe for example that there is a better way to procure items for your organization. ….it will not change. You will buy…pay for whatever you need they way it is written in the procurement order.

David B. Grinberg

Julie: thanks, as always, for your valuable feedback. You raise several excellent points which may need to be further examined and improved upon to help beef up millennial recruitment, hiring, retention and advancement gov-wide. Your candid comments are appreciated.

David B. Grinberg

FYI: Interesting article on private sector perks for millennials:

“Office Snack Delivery & Other Unique Perks: Why Millennials Want More Than A Paycheck”

  • “By offering everything from office snack delivery to paid trips to Mexico, employers are responding to millennial culture and the competitive job market. Let’s face it—millennials live in ‘Perk Nation’ and employers can either join in or lose out on top talent.”

Which of the perks highlighted in the article might be feasible for the public sector workforce?

  • Complimentary Good Food & Snacks
  • Healthy Lifestyle Enablement & Encouragement
  • Out-of-Office Adventures & Vacations
  • Purpose-filled Paid Time Off
  • Workplace Flexibility (telework, Results-Only Work Environment)

Anything else to add?

Mark Hammer

Reading a paper now, from the current issue of Academy of Management Journal, on corporate social performance (CSP) as an attractant for private-sector job-seekers. The underlying notion is that signs and omens of the employer’s CSP, such as community activities they are involved in, environmental concerns and “green things in general” (little Frank Zappa nod, there), can appeal to job-seekers for three basic reasons:

  • social prestige factors: i.e., the pride of being associated with an employer that has such a good rep
  • values fit between the values of the prospective employee and the organization
  • expectations of how the organization treats its employees

Some of that has a bit of overlap with the literature on public service motivation (Perry & Wise 1990) as a factor in career-path selection (which is what led me to read the paper in the first place), but there’s some additional stuff in there that public-sector recruiters can use, or that agencies can work on.

I also think this prompts some questions that recruiters can ask themselves when looking at their agency’s FEVS results, and perhaps points the way to some things that can be ramped up a little in recruitment ads. We may think that everybody already knows that agency X does this or that for the nation, but we forget that every year there is a new crop of folks with no knowledge of that, and they need to be told about the CSP of that agency.

David B. Grinberg

Thank you, Mark, for sharing more of your important and impressive insights on this topic. As usual, you raise several purposeful points. Moreover, it’s always very helpful to hear the views of government workers from our nice neighbors to the north.

It sounds like the paper you cite should be required reading for HR officials at public sector agencies. Also, as you point out, it’s important for gov agencies to shine a spotlight on their recruitment efforts of millennials so the message doesn’t get lost too quickly. This should be a fairly simple task by leveraging social media and perhaps putting out a press release.

The bottom line is this: failure of public sector agencies to recruit, hire and retain the next generation of leaders means that this talented group of young people will continue to seek out private sector jobs with more flexibility and modern-day work environments.

This is yet another significant reason why I believe it’s past time for federal agencies, led by OPM, to renew pilot projects experimenting with a Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE — which will be the preferred workplace of the not-so-distant future.

Thanks again, kind sir!