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Government Struggles to Attract Young Workers

How local, state and federal government recruiters can attract more Millennial job seekers.


While they were in college,Who Are Federal Workers Infographic Jillian Obermeier and Chase Erickson never envisioned careers in public service. They had heard all the stereotypes: There’s too much red tape. There are few opportunities to advance. Worst of all, it’s boring.

But today, they both work for the federal government, and they admit to being surprised at just how fulfilling their jobs are. Obermeier, 26, an HR specialist, and Erickson, 29, an image scientist, are excited about their daily duties at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which analyzes imagery from satellites and other sources at its headquarters in Springfield, Va.

A family member who works at the agency encouraged Obermeier to apply for a summer internship there. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work in government, but they told me, ‘The worst thing that happens is you have a paid job over the summer and you decide it’s not for you.’ Then I got here and I loved it,” she says. After two summers as an intern, Obermeier was hired full time in 2013.

​Erickson, who joined the NGA in June 2016, had worked with the agency previously as a contractor. Because he grew up with Google Maps and GPS navigation devices, he says, “it was cool to take technology I was familiar with and now use it for my job—obviously in a slightly different way.” As a contractor, he had made “a lot of really cool, unique [mapping] products” for the agency. He saw how they were being used by the NGA “to do some really fantastic things,” and he wanted to be a part of it.

Local, state and federal government employers need more Millennials like Obermeier and Erickson. A lot more. That’s because the workforce is graying and starting to retire in big numbers, yet young people seem reluctant to take advantage of job openings in the public sector. Only 7 percent of federal workers are Millennials, for example, compared with 23 percent of private-sector workers, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which works with agencies and other stakeholders to make government more effective and efficient.

Like their counterparts in private companies, HR professionals in government are struggling to attract the best young workers. It’s a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. After all, government work can provide Millennials with many of the things they’re looking for in a profession, including meaningful work, a clear mission and even flexible schedules.

A Complex Generation

​Millennials have a reputation for being self-absorbed, but it’s not as simple as that. And with a head count of about 80 million, they are far from uniform. Still, surveys show that many care deeply about social and political issues but aren’t sure how to fulfill their personal and professional ambitions. Government service can help meet those needs.

 “I think that Millennials are interested in doing something that is bigger than themselves,” says Carolyn W. Colvin, acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) in Washington, D.C.

Kristine Korva, a principal at Deloitte Consulting in Arlington, Va., goes one step further: “The mission of public service appeals to this generation more than any other,” she says.

​Indeed, recent research shows that certain government jobs are attractive to Millennials, especially those who may have grown up with a strong sense of patriotism due to the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on their childhood development. A National Society of High School Scholars survey of more than 12,000 students ages 15 to 29, in which respondents were asked to identify their ideal future employer, found that the FBI and CIA both ranked in the top 10, with the National Security Agency close behind. All government employers can leverage this affinity by linking public service to a collective sense of giving back.

That’s a point that every government operation needs to emphasize to attract Millennial job applicants. “You have to be open and candid about the mission and how the work that they do connects to that mission,” Korva says. “Where there are differences from the private sector, you need to highlight them.”Leaders at the SSA try to instill a sense of mission in employees, no matter what their age or job title. “We save lives every day, and we touch the lives of almost everyone in this country,” Colvin says. Employees “can go home knowing that they’re giving some family member hope for a better future.

”Historically, job security has been a top attraction of government service. But that’s not a key driver for young people today, says Ann Vanderslice, president and CEO of Retirement Planning Strategies, a New York City-based company that helps federal employees manage their benefits. “Job security is not as important to Millennials,” she explains. “They plan to change jobs frequently.

“Individual government entities have responded to this new reality by implementing initiatives to engage young workers. At the NGA, for example, each intern is assigned to “a meaty project that goes all the way to our director and deputy director,” says Ellen Ardrey, director of the agency’s human development directorate. “We recognize that Millennials are our future. Paid internships are highly popular with this demographic. You get practical application of the skills you are learning in school.” Other benefits: Some employees are eligible to receive assistance in paying off their student loans; telework and flexible schedules are encouraged; and, with supervisor approval, workers can use an onsite gym three hours a week during standard business hours.

At the SSA, the Skills Connect initiative allows workers to spend 20 percent of their work time pursuing other internal projects outside of their normal responsibilities for up to six months. It’s the same tactic being used by cutting-edge tech companies to foster innovation and motivation—and it fits well with Millennials’ interest in exploring myriad opportunities as they move from the traditional model of a career “ladder” to more of a career “web.” Begun by the SSA as a pilot program, Skills Connect is now available to all full-time regular employees.

“It has been a total success,” says Reginald F. Wells, the agency’s deputy commissioner for human resources in Washington, D.C. “It really has allowed people to show off skills that may be technically outside of their work responsibilities.” Project leaders say the work arrangement has led to several innovations at the agency, where Millennials represent 20 percent of the workforce.

“We understand what people want in the workplace,” Wells says. “They want to get involved wherever the action is in the agency.”

Still, that isn’t always enough. Says Colvin: “I focus a lot on enhancing our top-down, but also bottom-up, communication.” She holds town hall meetings with staff, talks on the phone with remote employees and encourages feedback. “Of course, government cannot move as quickly as it would like,” she says, “but I think the fact that [employees] see that we are moving and that we are listening has been helpful.”

It all begins with HR. “HR has to be the center of an organization because our greatest asset happens to be our employees,” Colvin says. “I don’t care how great the leadership is if you don’t have the trust and respect of your staff.”

Reaching Out

​Surveys show just how attractive government service can be to some in this generation. One study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that one-quarter of young people ranked government as one of their top target industries. (Overall, education, professional services and human services were the most popular industries among young people.) An Accenture poll of recent college graduates showed that 19 percent would be willing to work in the public sector at the federal, state or local level or in nonprofit organizations.

To attract young workers, the federal government has rolled out some initiatives, including:

  • Programs for interns, recent graduates and presidential management fellows targeted at recruiting quality workers as experienced federal employees retire. Called “Pathways,” these initiatives are overseen by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which essentially operates as the government’s HR department.
  • ​In-person, online and social media outreach by the OPM and individual agencies to educate students about Pathways and federal jobs in general.
  • The Hiring Excellence Campaign, designed to modernize the way agencies recruit and hire talent. Through the campaign, HR staff and supervisors in federal agencies across the country are trained on the various hiring authorities available—such as the Pathways programs—that can help them secure top talent.
  • Changes to streamline and improve the user experience of, the online federal job portal.

These initiatives are beginning to pay off. “We are seeing increasing representation of people under 35 in the federal workforce,” says Mark Reinhold, associate director of employee services and chief human capital officer with the OPM. “Many agencies are reaching out and showcasing what they have available.” 


‘[Professional] satisfaction, tied with the work/life balance, opportunities for advancement, education, good people on a good mission—I can’t think of a better place to work.’  
—Chase Erickson

And there are a lot of positions to choose from, says Reinhold, who is based in Washington, D.C. “There is probably no other employer in the world that hires people from astronauts to zoologists.”

Current statistics about the appeal of employment in the public sector don’t tell the full story because interest is growing, Reinhold adds.

Suggestions Abound

​There's no doubt that government battles image problems, especially at the federal level. "There's still a little bit of 'It's not cool to be a fed,' " Vanderslice says.

So government employers need to do a better job of publicizing that they can offer Millennials the things they want. Although many support work/life balance, they often don't promote their initiatives around that, according to Vanderslice. The same goes for assistance with paying back student loans. "Millennials don't even know about it," she says.

In addition, government entities would be wise to expose college students earlier to employment opportunities, says Margot Conrad, director of education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service. Some public-service employers start reaching out to future graduates in the spring of their senior year—months later than many private-sector employers do. Conrad notes that she sees some government recruiters adapting their routines to become more competitive. For example, several intelligence agencies now make presentations at high schools and host events such as summer math camps.

​It's also important for HR professionals to demonstrate that they care about each young worker's career development. "Young people want to know 'What investments are you making in me?' " Korva says.


‘I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work in government ...  Then I got here and I loved it.’
—Jillian Obermeier

In an attempt to build a stronger relationship with its young workers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has a group called Under 5 for employees with less than five years of service at the employer. It's designed to foster interaction and a more lasting connection to the agency, even after an employee departs.

"For those who want opportunities outside of government, we need to create off-ramps and on-ramps to welcome them back," Ardrey says. When Millennials leave, "If nothing else, you hope that they become ambassadors for your agency and your mission." That's critical, since the average tenure of Millennials in government jobs is 3.8 years.

The Jury’s Still Out

​A Deloitte survey report titled Understanding Millennials in Government questions some of the conventional wisdom about young people and public service, including the belief that it’s more difficult for public-sector employers to recruit today’s young people than it was to recruit those from previous generations.

“The jury’s still out,” according to Deloitte data scientist Peter Viechnicki, who authored the report.

It’s true that Millennials have more choices than their predecessors for doing work with a positive social impact. But during the Great Recession, government at all levels reduced jobs just as young people entered the labor force in peak numbers, according to the report, and many employers have not ramped back up to previous levels.

​Plus, the particular position that a Millennial may want is not always available, in part because job openings are not spread evenly across the government. For instance, the Department of Veterans Affairs was responsible for every third government hire during fiscal year 2013, and 88 percent of new federal employees were hired by only 10 agencies.

At the NGA, one of the things that Obermeier and Erickson like is the connection they’ve made with others their age. “There were a number of other Millennials in my orientation class with me that I was able to make friends with. Two of my best friends are from my orientation class,” Obermeier says.

Erickson had the same experience. Still, he has relished the opportunity to work with people of all ages. “When we mix with those older generations, we learn from them,” he says. “When we get to meet back with others of our generation, we share that information. It helps us do our job better.”

They find that their jobs provide that rare fulfillment of both their personal needs and the desire to do something important.

Erickson says he feels that every day he is doing “something bigger than myself that has global reach. That satisfaction, tied with the work/life balance, opportunities for advancement, education, good people on a good mission—I can’t think of a better place to work.”

Says Obermeier: “I tell people all the time that working for the government is pretty sweet.” It’s particularly exciting “when you watch the news and they are talking about the things that your agency contributes to. I’ve got 31 more years [in the labor force], and I plan on staying.” 

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.
Illustration by Dan Baxter for HR Magazine.

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