Millennials remain one of the most socially-minded generations of Americas. Still, their presence in government—an institution that at its core is designed to promote the general welfare—lags far behind the private sector. Critically, millennials comprise less than 10 percent of information technology employees in the government, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope data. They note that more than one-third of the federal government’s IT workers are age 55 or older. In fact, more federal tech workers are over age 60 than are under 35, governmentwide. For the public sector to move into the digital age, agencies must recruit and retain young tech talent by recognizing what millennials want in a workplace.
Most millennials go to work for the private sector and avoid the government’s antiquated systems and rigid hierarchy. But there’s no better generation to help lead agencies’ shift to digitization than the one with both savvy technological capabilities and the passion for social good. Agencies can court millennials for public service by taking these critical steps:
Focus on meaningful opportunities. Not every project needs to be (or can be) a mission to Mars, but that doesn’t mean other initiatives and developments shouldn’t be inspiring. Millennials believe in using technology to change the world. Agencies with inspiring missions, like the National Park Service, NASA, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institutes of Health, should focus their recruitment messaging on the unique opportunities they offer. Other agencies can market how they protect the nation, serve disadvantaged people, and protect the environment.
Create hiring authorities targeted to recent college grads. America’s millennials seek mission-driven employers that offer purpose-driven career opportunities with geographic flexibility. Arguably, there is no company or organization more mission-driven than the government and none that is in as many countries, states and localities. But public sector opportunities aren’t always made visible to recent grads like private sector and consultancy jobs are. In the same way the CIO Council coordinated hiring fairs where people could interview and be offered employment on the spot, agencies should more regularly make themselves present to engage with millennials through internship programs, career fairs, and leadership seminars. New recruitment efforts should complement current programs for military veterans and draw from their best practices.
Facilitate open communication. While agencies often work in silos, millennials are keen on design thinking. It’s important to strategically bring the right people from all facets of a project together in a room to produce the best result, regardless of organizational structure. In doing so, agencies are creating diverse skill sets at the office level that will lead to new conversations, solutions, and approaches to the challenges at hand. Creating the appropriate physical space for such collaboration is a good first step.
Preserve and create perks that address millennials’ concerns. From student loan repayment programs to casual dress codes, the public sector is already offering many of the perks millennials are seeking—they just don’t know it. Agencies must be bold in communicating their diverse (and often unknown) employee benefits, like recruitment bonuses and retention incentives. And new perks don’t have to break the bank. Creating office community spaces, offering leadership development opportunities, and encouraging staff to pursue extracurricular activities are all micro changes that make a big impact.
To help lead America’s public sector modernization, the government needs young, eager people to contribute at every level. Agency recruitment, training, professional development, and retention programs need to be revamped for the demands of today’s increasingly millennial workforce. We’re approaching a critical moment when baby boomers will retire en masse, but generation X is far too small to fill these gaps alone.
Younger people want to gain experience, do work that improves the world, and enjoy themselves along the way. The government can be a place for young professionals to do all three. Millennials will make up the core of the nation’s workforce for the next several decades. They are well-suited to bring their tech familiarity and social awareness to government agencies. To get there, the public sector needs to modernize thinking around recruiting and retention efforts.
Kris Tremaine is a Senior Vice President at ICF, leading the firm's federal digital, communications, and human capital practice.
Jeffrey Neal is a senior vice president at ICF, former chief human capital officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and publisher of the blog ChiefHRO.com.