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Millennials Face Hurdles Breaking into Public Sector

To compete with the private sector and nonprofits these days, states and localities have to rethink their recruiting and hiring processes.

As agencies at all levels continue to expand their use of contracting with private firms and nonprofits, young graduates entering the workforce are discovering that they don’t need to work in government to serve the public.
David Kidd

Chris Howell was dead set on working in local government. He had been a graduate student in business school and decided that wasn’t the career for him. So he began doing just about everything conceivable to prepare for a change in direction. He earned a master’s degree in public administration. Through volunteering and internships, he worked with a dozen municipalities—from a small town’s fire department to a regional chamber of commerce. Howell then hit the job market in late 2008.

It wasn’t the best time to be looking for public employment. By networking, though, Howell eventually succeeded in finding a job with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. “It was hard, but I knew it was what I wanted to do, so I kept at it,” he says. “If you really want to make local government your career, it’s a matter of persistence.” Now he works as a budget and management officer for the town of Dedham, Mass.

Breaking into the public sector isn’t a whole lot easier now than it was when Howell started out. Young people wanting to pursue government careers face a series of barriers. States and localities hard hit by budget pressures often lack the resources to offer them entry-level positions.

But it isn’t just the tight job market for new applicants that is changing the nature of state and local employment. Governments need to make adjustments of their own. It’s hard for agencies to compete with the private sector for top talent when they have to freeze pay or trim benefits. Millennials who do end up in the public sector bring their own perspectives and a different set of job expectations they want employers to accommodate. At the same time, the workforce continues to experience shifting roles as nonprofits and contractors take over more tasks traditionally performed by public employees.

Taken together, these realities are sending a signal that the next generation of public servants will be fundamentally different from those who make up much of the workforce today.

The Great Recession hit young people particularly hard in all sectors of the economy. The unemployment rate among people ages 20 to 24 hovered between 15 and 16 percent for much of 2009 and 2010. Some aiming at careers in government still haven’t caught up.

Tim McManus from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service says he has seen a dramatic reduction in paid summer internships, with federal agencies either providing only unpaid positions or eliminating slots altogether. “Young people looking at jobs face one of the more challenging times that we’ve seen in quite some time,” he says. Depending on how well they weathered the economic downturn, state and local governments may or may not have managed to preserve internships and other entry-level programs.

Recent signs do point to a slowly improving outlook in the public job market. A survey of mostly state and local government members of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources conducted this spring reported that 26.5 percent incurred hiring freezes, down from 41.6 percent the year before.

But there’s a catch. Hiring managers are so focused on immediate concerns that they’re ignoring workforce needs for the long term, McManus says. When governments are allowed to fill a single position after eliminating multiple jobs through layoffs or attrition, they tend to hire veterans who can hit the ground running.

When opportunities do exist, job applicants are in for a long wait. While the federal government expedited its hiring process in recent years, it still takes agencies around 100 days on average to hire. State and local governments typically fill vacancies faster, but lag far behind the private sector. “The private sector over the last 20 years has developed clear and better pathways to employment,” says Laurel McFarland of the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). One of the more common complaints levied against governments is that they often don’t update applicants on where they stand in the process, leaving job seekers in the dark as they hunt for other opportunities.

The lengthy hiring process and lower entry-level pay are obstacles that governments have long fought to overcome as they’ve recruited against the private sector. Offering generous benefits and pension plans helped agencies compete. However, many can no longer afford these incentives in an era of cutbacks. “Now that they’re not there, the public sector has to really work harder to be more attractive,” says Rex Facer, a Brigham Young professor who studies workforce issues.

An increasing number of new graduates hoping to work in government aren’t finding immediate openings or none that offer much job security, so they are taking their talents elsewhere. Young graduates entering the workforce are discovering that they don’t need to work in government to serve the public. As agencies at all levels continue to expand their use of contracting with private firms and nonprofits, students are adjusting their job searches accordingly.

At the University of Kentucky, about 20 percent of public administration and public policy graduates took jobs with businesses or private associations over the past two years. It’s a figure that has increased as students broaden their wish lists.

“We’re experiencing a much greater diversity of placements, and part of it is due to the reduction of opportunities in state and local government,” says Merl Hackbart, director of the university’s Martin School of Public Policy and Administration. With an understanding of the public sector, Hackbart says, the school’s graduates serve as valued additions to a government relations staff or other corporate offices.

Similarly, when J. Edward Kellough started teaching at the University of Georgia 25 years ago, it was unusual for public administration graduates to end up at nonprofits. Now, he estimates that about a third of students go to work in that sector, typically in management, performance measurement or related roles.

It’s clear that the lines dividing the roles of government, private firms and nonprofits have blurred. So rather than confine themselves to a single job sector, students tend to focus on an issue or policy goal regardless of where they’ll end up. “The sector distinction coming in is becoming less and less of a driver,” says Mary Beaulieu, Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s assistant dean and director of career advancement.

While recent graduates navigate a difficult job market, employers are adjusting to the new mindset that millennials are bringing to the workplace. For one thing, they don’t stay put for long. A national survey conducted by the research firm Millennial Branding found that 45 percent of companies experienced a turnover rate among their younger ranks double that of older employees. Along with job hopping, academics say younger workers expect to move between sectors as well.

“More than ever, I think students are coming back and are very interested in having an organizational culture that meets their needs,” says Bryan Kempton, career services director for the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Research also indicates that millennials desire work they consider meaningful right away. Employees decide how long they’ll stick around early on in new jobs, so it’s crucial for managers to give them at least a taste of something challenging soon after they sign on.

Jamie Gwynn, a 26-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate, focused his job search on local government, where he best felt he could directly implement programs without waiting long. Northampton Township in Pennsylvania was prepared to give him what he wanted. After a few months, he has worked on a budget, an employee handbook and employee pay classification. Seeing firsthand results as simple as a newly paved road are a source of great motivation for him. “We get to do a lot of the day-to-day things that really make people’s lives move,” Gwynn says. Like others of his generation, Gwynn wants to be in a position where he can grow and quickly learn. “We don’t set ourselves for 30 years,” Gwynn says. “We want to make a difference, otherwise, we’ll want to move on.”

North Carolina is one of the places where the turnover rate for state government workers ages 18-30 is approximately double that of older employees. Sondra Chavis, an HR consultant, says the state recognized a need to retain these workers and transfer to them vital knowledge from their peers. “Not only do we need young people to come in and take on these positions, but we need their brain and innovative ideas on the table,” she says.

The state responded by launching its Young Employees Initiative, not only to better understand the needs of millennials, but to actually address them. Employees mostly in their 20s from various state agencies serve on an advisory committee, conducting studies and making recommendations on issues important to their peers.

Chavis, who leads the initiative, says the committee has pushed long-neglected workforce concerns to the forefront. Online job applications, for example, were finally implemented by all state agencies last year. The group also made strides in encouraging agencies to allow for more flexible work schedules. “The energy level from the initiative and the fact that they can bring in a new perspective is really the kicker,” Chavis says.

What’s more, governments are realizing they’ll need to find new ways to connect with prospective employees. Chief among these are social media websites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

To further reach candidates, more state and local governments are posting openings on, a national recruiting website with an integrated applicant tracking system. Nearly 700 agencies in 44 states were advertising positons in August, the website reports. Before the North Carolina Department of Transportation began advertising positions on the site, the agency received about 125 applicants for an entry-level training program. Now, it’s getting about 400. “It has really made our recruitment pool become nationwide,” says Barry Bridges, the department’s career services manager, “where before it was very much a localized effort.”

Of particular concern for HR managers is the brain drain set to occur as a large segment of baby boomers exits the workforce. “Potentially, we have a talent crisis just as much as was talked about for the financial crisis,” says Elizabeth Kellar, president of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. Partnerships with academic institutions are gaining prevalence, she says, along with peer mentoring. “The governments ahead of the curve have been doing pretty serious workforce development work.”

In Wyoming, state health director Tom Forslund is employing a twofold approach to developing talent. A fellowship program places some recent public administration graduates in the department’s policy unit before they’re brought on as full-time employees. For others, the department recently kicked off a leadership development program in partnership with a local community college, providing talks by college instructors and other state employees over the course of nine months. “Governments need to respond to this changing world and be in a better position to compete and retain talent,” Forslund says. He is counting on this new crop of leaders to stay on and move up in the agency, a critical need since a quarter of the workforce will retire or be eligible to do so within the next five years.

The good news about all this change is that despite the drawbacks, millennials don’t seem to be discouraged from seeking careers in the public sector. Young up-and-comers continue to sign up for schooling in public administration and policy. The latest NASPAA figures indicate no dip in graduate school enrollment.

Will Miller, dean of the University of Illinois’ public administration program, says his students continue to want to pursue public service, despite all the negativity surrounding that state’s political environment and insolvent pension system. “In spite of it, we still have all these kids coming into the program,” he says. “That’s impressive.”

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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