The Future Is Now

It's one thing to attract young people to government jobs. It's another to keep them there.
November 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

There's been a lot of emphasis in states, counties and cities on hiring the new generation of the "best and the brightest." Toward that end, some have spruced up their Web sites so that applying for a job is as simple as buying a book online. They've set up booths at job fairs, run newspaper ads and gone on hiring forays in neighboring cities. A number of governments send cadres of recruiters to college campuses.

Here's the sad news: Many of these efforts aren't dissimilar to turning on the spigots in your bathtub -- while the drain is wide open.

"Our members talk about how young people aren't staying in their public-sector jobs," says Leslie Scott, association manager of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. "They can attract them, but they may not stay." In Texas last year, for example, there was a 36.9 percent turnover among those who were under 30, compared with 9.4 percent in the 40- to 49-year-old group.

Why this exodus? There are lots of reasons, most of them rooted in the yearning among many younger people for mobility, variety and speedy rewards. Many public-sector classification systems require a fair amount of time in a single position before there's an opportunity for a promotion, and that's antithetical to these priorities.

Joyce Gioia, CEO of the Herman Group, a firm of management consultants who focus on employee retention and engagement, suggests that employers be more discriminating about whom they hire, making an effort to profile the kinds of people who are likely to stay for longer periods with a government. "If you have a segment of your employee population that is not jumping," she says, "you look at the attributes they possess and hire more of them."

That sounds pretty good for jobs that attract many candidates, but that's not a common occurrence. Another option some governments have started to take is to borrow a page from the private sector and adapt the workplace to the desires of younger people.

South Carolina, for example, had watched turnover rates for young people rise from 27.5 percent in 2004 to 31.1 percent in 2006. Thanks to some changes made, this year the rate has backed down to 25 percent. "We've been trying to address some of the quality-of-life interest that the younger generation seems to value," says Sam Wilkins, director of personnel. The state now allows more telecommuting and more flexible work hours as well as compressed work weeks in which employees work four long days a week and then get three-day weekends.

"Another thing I hear about the younger generation is they don't want to get boxed in or pigeon-holed," says Wilkins. "They want to be learning and having other experiences and growth opportunities." South Carolina has responded by creating a public professional development certification program. It offers training in time management, professional speaking and other skills that help people develop into managers.

Louisiana is also trying to deal with turnover rates -- rates that jumped in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Where overall turnover grew from under 14 percent to over 22 percent, the rates for young people were higher than that.

Anne Soileau, director of Louisiana's Department of State Civil Service, has worked in that state's personnel department since 1977. She's been steadily seeking out ways to keep the pre-30s on board. She suggests giving young, new employees challenging projects from the start. "They need to see that they are an important part of the organization," she says. "They're not willing to wait around like my generation was."

There are mentoring programs to help new employees see that the organization is interested in and cares about them individually. And leadership-development seminars are open to young people, even if they're years away from becoming leaders.

Louisiana also offers a dual career-ladder program so that people can be promoted up the ranks even if the promotion doesn't involve supervising people. It's a way of recognizing that specialists and experts also deserve promotions that may not take them to a managerial track.

Soileau finds it effective to help young employees get regular feedback. Toward that end, Louisiana is putting a "supervisory potential" tool on its Web site. That way employees can get assessments on their strengths and weaknesses. The board for the Department of Civil Service will then open up classes to allow young people to use these assessments and deal with their weak points -- giving them the boost they may need to advance in the future.