How to recruit and retain millennials in public service

August 7, 2017

According to a Partnership for Public Service study, recruiting and retaining younger employees has become one of the greatest human resource challenges for federal agencies.

Millennials are largely avoiding government careers, and with the Baby Boom generation moving into retirement, federal agencies are challenged to find ways to attract and retain the upcoming generation.

Charlyn Hilliman, PhD, MPA, Chair of Public Administration at Capella University, speaks to the effect of this generational shift in public administration, and what government agencies need to do to embrace the millennial generation in the workforce.

Q. What does this shift in generations in the federal workforce mean for the government?

A. The “Silver Tsunami,” which is the term used to describe the mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce, is definitely going to hit the government quite hard. Baby Boomers who obtained a government job in their 20s and 30s typically stayed in that job until retirement. Now there will be a shift in generations as the federal workforce changes from being occupied by Baby Boomers to millennials.

One significant impact of this shift will be a lack of organizational experience in upper level management throughout federal agencies once Boomers retire. Government agencies must focus on training and development of younger employees—and fast, before the departure of the Boomers.

The emphasis on human resource management (HRM) will be essential. HR managers in government, in particular, are scrambling to understand how to attract and retain this younger workforce who largely is motivated by different factors than their predecessors.

Q. What are some of the strengths and skills that millennials can bring to the field?

A. The federal government needs employees who are not only accustomed to change, but are nimble and can adjust almost immediately, which are skills that many millennials bring to the table. They are masterful at navigating social media and adapt to new technologies and applications quickly. They can efficiently assess an app’s usefulness and can advise their superiors about its benefit for their organization.

Once agencies can figure out what motivates this population and how to promote job satisfaction, I believe it will be a perfect fit and exactly what the government needs…fresh ideas, innovation, and endless energy to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

Q. What changes must be made to accommodate and continue to attract millennials?

A. Attracting and retaining millennials in any level of government will not be easy. The pay for many government jobs is not competitive with the private sector, and the process for hiring can be long and difficult.

An immediate change to help attract millennials would be to dramatically reduce the time from application to the first day of work. This generation is used to immediate gratification, and a 2-to-3 year hiring process is a significant obstacle. Some of the bureaucratic layers in the hiring process must be eliminated to get the process down to 6-months at most.

Once federal agencies can overcome the hiring obstacles, they will need to adjust the workplace environment to accommodate a generation that enjoys their free time and personal space more than physical or job security. Millennials have turned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its tip. Many were born self-actualized, so the basic needs of security and shelter are not a big motivator. The role of HRM professionals in this effort cannot be understated.

Q. What are some good recruitment and retention strategies for driving millennials to public service?

A. Millennials have grown up in the digital age—they have been exposed to technology and innovation. To attract and retain this group, the jobs must promise technology, innovation, creativity, and flexibility. These factors are often more important to millennials than traditional benefits of job security, a pension, or guaranteed retirement after a certain number of years.

Millennials also want to be a part of the decision-making processes from day one. They want to share their ideas, and they want to be a part of the solution. This is all new for the government. The system was never designed for this level of engagement at the lower ranks.

But guess what? This is the new reality. Everyone can contribute something to the system, and engaging the new hires early can make for an efficient and nimble government.

 Q. How can government agencies help their millennial employees employ their creativity?

A. Managers can engage and empower millennials in something as simple as planning the next department meeting. Why suppress their natural instincts? Use the skills that they bring and encourage them to push the envelope.

I’m not sure why the previous generations did not demand this level of personal and professional power, but kudos to the millennials. An engaged, informed, and enthusiastic workforce will help provide a more efficient government for us all.

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