Agencies falling behind in recruiting young technology workers

At a time when the government needs to attract thousands of information technology workers to replace retirees, its ability to do so is falling further behind the private sector's capacity.

Companies and nonprofit organizations are quickly adapting pay and benefits packages to appeal to the so-called Millennials, those who fall between the ages of 18 to 31. "Companies are already looking at how to change compensation packages to include more incentives and benefits," said Jack Harrington, chief executive officer of research firm Atlantic Associates in West Roxbury, Mass. "I haven't heard that yet from the government, but it's already happening in the private and nonprofit sector."

Atlantic Associates released a survey this month in which Massachusetts IT executives said that managing Millennials was the biggest challenge they face. Coming in a distant second was managing Generation X workers, those between the ages of 32 and 42. The report, which surveyed over 100 executives at 40 firms, also found that other challenges in 2008 will include retaining existing IT personnel, keeping their training current and recruiting new staff despite the shortage of qualified candidates.

Harrington listed telework and increased compensation and training as areas that companies are considering to ease recruiting. He added that "the gap is widening" between the public and private sector, as private firms offer innovative benefits to attract the workers of all ages.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington-based advocacy group that encourages a new generation to enter public service, said government managers have "to be very flexible and attuned to some of these generational differences."

In a 2004 survey, the Partnership found that younger workers are more motivated to take jobs that help people in need and to "make a difference" as when compared with mid-career workers, 36 percent to 31 percent, respectively. Palguta said because government is in the business of helping people, it can play to that sentiment.

"Nowadays, if you have somebody coming into the workforce, particularly in the government, they are likely to ask, 'How does my job contribute to the greater good? How am I making a difference and helping to achieve the agency's goals?' " Palguta said. "But they still want a good quality of life, benefits and flexibility, not only in terms of time but also in the way they approach the job."

Atlantic Associates found the same desire among Millennials to work for altruistic organizations. "The quality of work and the quality of the organization seem to be more important to the Millennials, as do the social and cultural aspects of their jobs," said Jack Harrington, CEO of Atlantic Associates. He said companies that are active in the community and engage in philanthropic activities are more attractive to younger employees.

The Atlantic survey identified application developers and project managers as the most needed IT staff for 2008.

Palguta suggests that if agencies want to attract Millennials, managers need to be willing to give younger workers "a little wiggle room" in how they get the job done.

"That would also suggest that if you're a manager with a lot of younger workers, if you create a very rigid environment, that's not going to be very satisfying for your best and brightest," he said. "I think it would be devastating in an IT environment. IT by its nature needs people who are creative and can see beyond the current application of a software program and see opportunities to expand beyond its current uses."

Palguta offers eight ways an organization can create a work environment that is more attractive to Millennials:

  • Look for energetic and motivated individuals.
  • Give them a meaningful work experience that challenges them. Don't put them in jobs in which they spend their first two years providing support to superiors.
  • Hold them accountable for end results and not for the processes they use to get the job done.
  • Look for ideas on the Best Places to Work, Web site, where the Partnership ranks agencies based on employee feedback from surveys conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.
  • Move employees around the organization to provide flexibility and learning experiences.
  • Create an environment where employees can use people skills.
  • Develop people skills among managers and supervisors.
  • Develop a creative work environment that produces happy workers.
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