Why Millennials Spurn Government Jobs

The lure of Silicon Valley is just one reason among many.

Phillip Sheridan, a 34-year-old government technology contractor, believes his federal security clearance raises his earning power in the Washington metropolitan area by $30,000.

“But it makes you insecure because you think you don’t have skills to compete in Silicon Valley,” he said. In his heart of hearts, he “wants to be around people who’re excited about their job every day and absorb that energy from them.”

In government, Sheridan added, the only place you get that excitement is at “the tip of spear,” such as serving in other countries or helping agency cyber-teams fend off hackers. Plus, “government undertrains its employees, and contractors [are] even worse because their companies don’t have extra funds for training,” he said.

Not being able to travel to cybersecurity industry conferences like his private-sector counterparts is a burden because they’re “mandatory for career advancement,” Sheridan told Government Executive. “You have to be able to learn what’s going on in the world.”

The obstacles agency recruiters face in attracting the digitally-absorbed millennial generation (generally considered to be the 18-34 cohort) are by now a well-discussed litany of stereotypes: government is slow, bureaucratic and behind the technology curve, while millennials are entrepreneurial, impatient for results, restless to switch jobs and hungry for work that gives their life meaning beyond a paycheck.

But another reason the nation’s 75 million millennials represent only 16.9 percent of the workforce (according to the Office of Personnel Management), is their fascination with those necktie-less billionaires they associate with Silicon Valley.

“The attractions are the ability to do something completely independently, be your own boss, build something, have a great idea and implement it yourself,” said Dave Wilson, a cyber-specialist with a federal agency who covered Silicon Valley for three years as a journalist. “Often, people will spend a lot of time in an agency building a specific skill set or program management and take that out in the world,” where the main drivers are “ the potential for making a transformative change on a societal level and the large amounts of money,” Wilson said. Young people, especially, “are more inclined to take that risk and go for the brass ring.”

Lucas Fisher, a computer engineer who left a decade-long career the Defense Department for a Seattle firm after making contacts at a conference on cloud computing, said, “I was okay in government for a while, moving around to several different positions, but I tended to get bored. Eventually, what got me was I got stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire that prevented me from doing the research I and my organization wanted to do.”

Eric Gillespie, founder, CEO and director of the Arlington, Va.-based big data and analytics firm Govini (which has a partnership with Government Executive Media Group), noted that “millennials grew up in an era of rising globalization. They want work they believe in and a strong work-life balance. The rapid progression of new ideas is essential to them. It’s no surprise that federal agencies struggle to attract the best and brightest from this talented generation” so fond of questioning the status quo, said the tech-field veteran. “In government, the best idea doesn’t always win. Relationships, tenure and structure are prized over innovation.”

What Makes Them Tick?

Bad news for agency hiring managers came in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study released last January that found only 2 percent of millennials planned on working in government. Half to two-thirds, the survey showed, are interested in entrepreneurship. Gallup Organization data this May included the disturbing figure that 21 percent of millennials report changing jobs within the last year—more than three times the number of non-millennials.

Gallup characterized the results as follows: “Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck—they want a purpose. For millennials, work must have meaning,” wrote Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton.

“Millennials are not pursuing job satisfaction—they are pursuing development. Most millennials don’t care about the bells and whistles found in many workplaces today—the pingpong tables, fancy latte machines and free food that companies offer to try to create job satisfaction . . . Millennials don’t want bosses—they want coaches . . . Millennials don’t want annual reviews—they want ongoing conversations. Millennials don’t want to fix their weaknesses—they want to develop their strengths. And finally, they don’t view the job as a job, but as their life.”

More promising for federal recruiters was an Accenture Strategy Research poll of recent college graduates released in June showing that 19 percent are seeking work in federal, state or local government or nonprofit organizations, up from 13 percent in 2013, with 74 percent preferring the federal government.

Katherine LaVelle, managing director for Accenture strategy, told Government Executive that the young people she sees “want to integrate work and life together. They’re okay working 60-70 hours a week, but they want to take time out during the day to get on their mobile devices to make weekend plans or chat with friends,” she noted. “They’re comfortable with assuming they can integrate work with life and social presence.”

Millennials prioritize having “a positive social atmosphere,” Lavelle added, even if that means a lower salary. “They’re no longer as interested in a straight career ladder, but more like a career jungle gym, which turns different experiences into a career,” she said. Some 92 percent surveyed want to work for an organization with social responsibility.

The Government’s Efforts

Ask OPM officials about the millennial problem and they cite a litany of ongoing federal recruitment programs. The cumbersome USAJobs website is being revamped. A “Hiring Excellence” campaign was introduced this spring. Officials point to President Obama’s 2010 executive order on recruiting students and recent graduates, a “GovConnect” program that allows federal employees to take a few hours a week to work on projects that interest them outside their main job. They cite a 2012 directive to close the government skills gap with Presidential Management Fellows.

The government’s millennial cutting edge is said to be the White House-based U.S. Digital Services team that, in one profile was said see itself as “just as technologically nimble as Silicon Valley.”

OPM, a spokesperson told Government Executive, conducts nationwide outreach to students and recent graduates along with other agencies. “We are actively educating job seekers on how to find federal jobs, the federal hiring process, the Pathways Program and how write a resume. Maintaining strong relationships with OPM’s key academic partners is fundamental to help agencies broaden their applicant pools to include a diverse mix of entry-level talent,” she said.

In cybersecurity, in particular, OPM mimics the private sector in helping agencies use in-person and virtual outreach (through OPM’s Human Resources University). The current USAJOBs has a social media presence that includes Linked In, Google+, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the spokesperson said, while 65 percent of agencies are recruiting through social media.

Finally, one of the government’s most important recruitment tools may be money—specifically, the college loan debt many young people carry. “The student loan repayment program allows agencies to repay federally insured student loans as a recruitment or retention incentive,” OPM said, noting agencies can target the program to occupations such as technology.

A Cultural Divide

Will it be enough? Several millennials interviewed by Government Executive suggest not.

Rebecca Williams, 32, a veteran of data management at the Office of Management and Budget now an adviser for city strategies at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Government Excellence, described the culture shock she felt at OMB. In government, “the pace of work is slower, and the ability to travel or make decisions as small as downloading some extension tool on a [desktop] computer are complicated by policies,” she said.

“There’s an epidemic of legacy information technology at all levels in agencies, some of which have been trying to get off them for years.” It’s not as if millennials can’t handle old systems, she added, but it should be a matter of months, not years to update them. On the upside for her, Williams added, “now that I have spent time in government, I come off as more experienced.”

By contrast, Amanda Nguyen, 33, a veteran of the press office in a component of the Agriculture Department who now crafts brand communication strategies for CHIEF, praised the “supportive leadership” she experienced in government that was open to tapping new digital tools to engage audiences. But there were limits. “I’ve always been one who appreciates the bureaucracy and the policy, and having those kind of guardrails so you can be really creative within them, knowing the boundaries,” she said.

Nguyen had the unusual experience of “parlaying” her Agriculture work into a new position. There is a desire of many millennials to aim high and to demand feedback—“to throw caution to the wind and say what is wrong” in the organization, said Nguyen, who was named one of FedScoop’s “Top 25 Most Influential People Under 40” in government and technology. 

One close observer of recent graduates’ attitudes toward government service is Laurel McFarland, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration. “Everyone wants to attribute the most flexible traits to the private sector and the most slow-moving to government, but it’s not uniform or a monolith,” she said.

Though McFarland knows cases in which the government “moved nimbly” and hired a young person quickly, “the vast majority tell the same story—it’s a slow, tedious, seemingly random process that usually ends in rejection over a long period.”

She worries that “government is starting to lose out at every stage,” as private employers such as Google “use social media way out in front to shape new graduates’ perceptions of the companies. Like a soft drink, you perceive it to be a cool employer,” she said, “and they’ve already got you long before you apply. I can assure you the federal government is not doing that.”

Despite the government’s efforts on Twitter and Linked In, the private sector is “way out in front in the passive application process,” McFarland said, referring to techniques of recruiting young people still in school by perusing their online profiles—even using artificial intelligence to mine the data, and acknowledging “alternative credentials” such as technical certificates.

McFarland recommends that agencies better target student loan repayment benefits to young people who commit to government service.

In general, she said, “I don’t think students today are demanding any more than they ever have. What’s changed is that we’ve seen the ability of the [private] workplace to adapt” to such issues as work-life balance.