Future Focus: A Tarnished Public-Sector Brand

By Jennifer Schramm Dec 1, 2013

The old stereotype of public-sector jobs is that of secure, steady work. But the lasting impact of the Great Recession, along with the recent federal government shutdown, has made this job security less certain. That may make it more difficult for public-sector HR professionals to attract young job seekers at a time when they are needed the most.

Data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) have shown job security to be a top factor in job satisfaction, and job security has traditionally been one of the main attractions of a public-sector career. According to SHRM benchmarking data, employees in public-sector jobs have a much longer average tenure: 12.3 years in 2012, compared with eight years in all industries. Turnover rates are lower, too: 11 percent voluntary and 2 percent involuntary in the public sector, compared with 13 percent and 8 percent among all industries.

But state and local governments have drastically cut spending and eliminated hundreds of thousands of jobs since the recession began. Meanwhile, employees in the remaining jobs have seen slow wage growth, reduced benefits and, in many cases, pay freezes, salary cuts and furloughs. At the federal level, the almost 3 million civilian workers who were affected by the recent shutdown may have a growing sense that economic and employment uncertainty caused by political wrangling and reduced budgets may be the new normal.

For public-sector HR professionals, these changes make their jobs more difficult. In the years ahead, they may need to contend with a tarnished employer brand among young job seekers right as Baby Boomers are leaving their government jobs in greater numbers.

Federal workers are about four years older on average than the rest of the U.S. workforce. This means that the impact of the Baby Boomer retirement wave is hitting the public sector sooner than the rest of the economy. In 2012, there were 262,000 government workers over the age of 60, up from about 94,000 in 2000. Although many clung to their jobs during the recession, retirements are now expected to pick up.

Will it be easy to find younger workers to replace these retiring Boomers? The Millennial generation represents a huge pool of workers to draw from. At the same time, many of the government jobs being vacated by older workers require high levels of skill and education. SHRM’s Ongoing Impact of the Recession industry surveys found that the top five most difficult positions to fill in the federal government are scientists, high-skilled technical workers, engineers, managers and executives, and skilled tradespeople.

Skills and education gaps could make these jobs even harder to fill, as would a growing view among young job seekers that the fading job security of high-skilled public-sector jobs is no longer a reasonable trade-off for pay packages that are generally lower than in equivalent private-sector jobs. With student loans to pay off, many Millennials will focus first and foremost on compensation. With all these factors taken together, HR professionals in the public sector might spend the next decade looking for effective ways to rebuild their employer brand.

Jennifer Schramm is manager of the Workforce Trends program at SHRM.

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