5 Ways to Get Millennials to Choose Government

Young people are as motivated by the idea of public service as they ever were. Governments aren't doing what they should to take advantage of that.
February 24, 2016
Philip Joyce
By Philip Joyce  |  Contributor
Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

Government workers, like the rest of us, are getting older. Now that the Great Recession is behind us, the long-predicted "brain drain" of Baby Boomers retiring from the public workforce may finally be upon us. Governments will need a strategy for replacing these workers. That strategy -- for budgetary reasons if nothing else -- must involve appealing to the millennial generation, and particularly those currently in college and graduate school.

Unfortunately, government is falling short in its efforts to recruit millennials at the precise moment when recruiting them might be most important. A November 2015 study from Deloitte Consulting cites figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that put the percentage of millennials working for the public sector at less than one-fourth, compared to one-third of this age group in private-sector jobs.

This is not because the idea of public service is inherently unattractive to this group. As a university professor and administrator, I spend a lot of time with millennials, and I can report that many are highly motivated to "do good." In fact, I see no difference in the level of this motivation from what I saw among my peers 40 years ago or from my previous students 20 years ago. There are, however, a lot more options for doing good than there were 20 or 40 years ago, and increasingly millennials looking to scratch their altruistic itch are going to work for consulting firms and nonprofits.

Given these options, the question is whether they see government as a force for good and as a venue for them to take their passion for good and translate it into making a difference in people's lives. Older workers -- those now or soon to be eligible to retire -- were motivated by public service, but they also chose government employment for other reasons, including job security and more attractive and reliable pensions than the private sector provided. This is less of a motivation for today's younger workers, partially because public-sector jobs are less secure and benefits are less generous than they were 30 (or even 10) years ago.

The key question, then, is what governments can do to make public service more attractive to this age group, and to encourage them to stay once they arrive. Here are five things that might be done to promote these goals:

1. Make it easier to apply for a job. In a recent Governing article, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene described many traditional government hiring systems as being in the "stone age," while outlining more flexible, modern systems being adopted by some states and localities. If, because of rigid civil-service rules, it takes six months to a year to make a decision on hiring, some potential workers will never apply, while many others will not be able to afford to wait.

2. Create more paid summer internships. Government can be its own best advertisement. Students who end up with government internships often find the reality of government work attractive, and many end up working for the same or similar institutions after graduation. In many places, however, the paid internship, rather than being seen as a good investment in future workers, is viewed as an extravagance.

3. Cut back on self-inflicted wounds. News reports about the dysfunction of some governments do little to make it look like an attractive employer. Why would anyone, right now, want to work for the states of Illinois or Pennsylvania? These governments cannot even adopt budgets or pay employees and government beneficiaries in a timely and reliable way. And this kind of uncertainty encourages the people with options to leave government. There is evidence, for example, that the federal-government shutdown of 2013 resulted in the departure of some young employees from public service.

4. Stop fouling the nest. When politicians, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, make political hay by attacking their own governments' workers and work to destroy their civil-service and union rights, it makes government less attractive to potential hires, especially the ones with other options.

5. Reward performance; don't reward failure. One of the byproducts of rigid personnel systems is that they fail to create incentives that motivate employees. A culture where performance is rewarded will likely attract and retain those who are motivated by government service. On the other hand, systems that are overly protective of poor performers (whether because of union-contract provisions, civil-service rules or other reasons) send a signal that performance doesn't matter.

If government is to be effective, it cannot afford to ignore the need to make government service appealing to those who represent the future. Unless concerted efforts are made to attract these future workers and retain them, avoidable performance failures will be the inevitable result. That's a bad deal not only for governments and their workforces but also for the citizens they serve.