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Winning the War for Talent In The Public Sector

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We’ve been talking for years about the war for talent and the challenges organizations face in recruiting and retaining talent. A 2015 study by Accenture reports 64 percent of 70 public sector leaders across 18 states report difficulty attracting and retaining talent. Similarly, a recent Pew Research study found that state HR organizations were challenged to recruit and retain skilled workers.

Recruitment and retention is exacerbated by an aging workforce and changing employment preferences among younger workers. Gen Z’s are incredibly resourceful, resilient and entrepreneurial. And over half of millennials (ages 21-37) and generation Z’s (ages 7-21) dream of starting their own businesses.

Further, prolonged hiring times, bureaucratic and hierarchical management models also make it harder to attract workers, especially people 35 and under, who increasingly want to work for innovative and agile organizations.

Studies show competitive salaries and a stable organization are basic needs when it comes to attracting and retaining employees. What differentiates employers, however, is organizational reputation and an aspirational mission and purpose. So what are agencies to do?

Attracting and Retaining Top Talent

To drive change, employers should focus on what they can control -- a work environment specific to the agency or work group, manager capability, and fostering a culture of autonomy and empowerment. According to an Accenture study of millennials, these three factors influence retention:

  • Productive relationship with one’s manager (65 percent of respondents said this was important)
  • Skills development opportunities (57 percent of respondents said this was important)
  • Flexible work arrangements (47 percent of respondents said this was important)

Great Management

People join companies. They leave their managers. At the heart of attracting and retaining talent, is having a strong cadre of managers all the way from the front-line supervisor to the executive level. Often, we promote technical superstars into management roles and don’t equip them with the skills they need to do the work. And even when superstars are promoted to management, their portfolio of work doesn’t always shift, meaning they have management responsibilities without the space to manage well. In these scenarios, managers lack the requisite time for leading and motivating teams. It’s imperative for organizations to invest in the leadership at all levels, and to create space on the leader’s docket for them to perform well.  

Managing by outcomes is critical in leading the younger workforce. They have grown up with technology at their fingertips and that has given them the ability to get work done anywhere and anytime. As a result, a study from Pew Research shows that while pay is a factor in choosing an employer, flexibility and telecommuting are increasingly becoming important for job seekers. Providing flexible work arrangements and managing by deliverables rather than face time or inputs is important for public sector leaders to embrace. It’s not enough to just have teleworking capabilities if the work is still done and managed the same way.

Opportunities to Learn And Grow

We all have a fundamental desire to learn, grow and improve. At work, the best way to attract and retain talent is to ensure that people are matched to jobs that best leverage their skills and desires. And, once they are in those roles, give them opportunities to broaden their skills and expertise. We often lean on formal internal and external training programs to develop our talent. However, the best development comes on the job and from stretch assignments where employees can experiment with new ideas, try out new skills, and develop skills in an environment that is nurturing and encouraging. People need to feel safe to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. It’s also important to recognize and share that career growth doesn’t always need to occur in a vertical fashion. In fact, career lattices and growing your career in a zig-zag way is increasingly common.

One of my public sector clients implemented employee leadership development plans for all employees. This was a formal way to ensure both managers and employees talked about what the employees enjoyed doing, where they felt their strengths were being leveraged, and their broader interests. This allowed managers and the company to develop a plan to make the employees’ growth goals a reality. The conversations were based on the premise that everyone wants to learn and grow, and that both managers and employees have an equal partnership in ensuring that happens. Characterizing the plans as an employee “growth” plans subtly inferred that they were not punitive, as employee development plans are sometimes considered. Most importantly, managers modeled having and openly discussing their growth plans. Finally, the organization leaders reconciled the fact that while employees may leave their agency for other opportunities, investing in employees strengthened their skills and benefitted the organization.

Connect the Work to a Higher Purpose

Managers should help employees understand how their work helps to drive the mission of the organization. Employees appreciate seeing how their individual work serves a higher purpose, such as helping constituents. A study conducted by Fast Company, showed that 68 percent of millennials (compared to 42 percent of Baby Boomers) said that creating change in the world is a personal goal they actively pursue. By nature of the work they do, public sector organizations all have compelling missions. However, that line of sight may be more challenging for those who aren’t directly interacting with the public and advancing the mission of the organization. Giving employees an opportunity to connect with the mission and purpose of the organization on a regular basis is key to attracting and retaining talent.

In the long-term, public sector employers must identify ways to shorten the hiring and on-boarding process, invest in the growth and development of managers, and be intentional about fostering a culture of autonomy and empowerment. Forward-looking employers are beginning to focus on the overall employee experience which begins the moment the candidate engages with the prospective employer and continues to the time they exit the organization. Millennials and Gen Z’s deserve, and demand, no less.

Shaara Roman is Founder and Managing Partner of The Silverene Group, a boutique firm that consults with organizations to help them create amazing workplaces. The company supports leaders as they build engaging cultures.

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