Why Can’t We Attract Younger Employees to the Workforce?

According to this recent article by Rachel Feintzeig in the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of federal employees under the age of 30 hit an eight-year low of 7% in 2013. It’s not a new problem, but it’s part of a consistent trend – the number has been steadily dropping since the late ’70s, when workers under the age of 30 made up over 20% of the work force.

Feintzeig writes that without young people, the government risks falling behind the wave of new technology, as well as losing out on the innovative way of thinking that comes with a fresh outlook. A bigger problem is replacing employees as the older generations start to retire. According to this Census Bureau info, sixty percent of federal employees are over the age of 45 (compared to 31 percent in the private sector).

Whether it’s a lack of interest or lack of opportunities as baby boomers who were expected to retire have hung onto their jobs because of the recession, there’s been a slowdown of young people entering government employment.

Young People Value Making a Difference

One of the biggest problems seems to be the disconnect between the general idealism of young people, and the perception the current generation has that the government can’t make a difference. After growing up watching gridlock and political posturing kill any progress in the legislature, Millennials have developed a jaded view of what’s possible in a federal job.

In this Atlantic article by Ron Fournier, Millennials are portrayed as community-service-loving, innovative thinkers who want to see their work make an impact – but 47 percent agree that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges out country is facing.”

Fournier goes on to say that:

“Millennials believe traditional politics and government (especially Washington) are the worst avenues to great things. They are more likely to be social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems, even if only on a relatively small scale.”

Young People Want Speed and Flexibility

Young people who value the idea of public service are inundated with stories of glacial progress within the government. Again from Feintzeig’s Wall Street Journal article:

“Jeremy Warren spent seven years in government, starting at the age of 29. The former chief technology officer at the Justice Department left government work in 2011, he says, because he wanted to be “driving a speedboat rather than pulling an oar on an ocean liner. He says he tackled plenty of challenging projects, but he also recalls spending years persuading various leaders in different offices to support a proposal, squeezing a project into a budget request and then worrying that funding would vanish.”

It’s an idea that’s echoed in this article in Government Executive, where several of the young government employees interviewed say they’ll move to the private sector if that’s where their work will have the biggest impact.

It’s not just speed of change that’s deterring young people – several commenters on this GovLoop discussion from a few years back mentioned the slow hiring process and inflexible work environment as major problems. One woman remembers losing great job candidates to the long hiring process (when other employers were able to make offers sooner), while another recalls losing team members who wanted more flexibility to telecommute or set their own hours.

Young People Want to Invest in Their Careers

Shutdowns, furloughs, and pay freezes have transformed the image of a government job as a stable, sure bet in the eyes of young people. They no longer see it as a place to develop their skills and careers – summarizing research by the Partnership for Public Service, this article in the Washington Post claims “federal employees are less likely than their private-sector peers to feel they have a real opportunity to improve their job skills.”

The government employees interviewed for Government Executive echo that sentiment, citing lack of leadership training programs and slow promotions as deterrents for young people with career ambition.

How Government Can Attract Younger Workers

  • Make jobs easier to find. Young people are using a variety of websites to search for jobs, including LinkedIn, Monster, and Career Builder. According to the Partnership for Public Service, despite 25% of college students ranking a government job in their top three choices, only 8.8% of them had used USAJobs.gov to search for a job.
  • Allow for more flexibility on the job. Startup culture and flexible learning options have instilled in many young workers a preference for job descriptions focused on the results of their work, rather than the number of hours they spend sitting in an office chair. Adaptable work schedules and telecommuting options appeal to younger workers.
  • Provide opportunities for growth and learning. Young workers want opportunities to develop their skills and advance their careers – they’re not content to stay in the same role year after year. Offering mentorship programs, career training, and clear paths for career development will help attract young workers.
  • Connect with younger workers’ idealism. Younger workers attracted to the public sector are looking for ways to make a difference. When recruiting, highlight success stories that demonstrate the ways government work can still change the world for the better.

What’s your experience been? How can the public sector attract more young workers?

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