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How Local Government Can Recruit and Retain the Gen Z Workforce

They make up the smallest percentage of workers in state and local government. Despite being sought after, efforts to hire and retain them aren’t increasing those numbers.

Only 8 percent of government employees are under the age of 30.
They’re the future of the workforce, but Gen Z still isn’t making a big showing in government. Only 8 percent of government employees are under the age of 30 and, with an aging government workforce looking toward retirement or changing to the private sector, that number needs to go up fast to meet increasing demands.

Right now, 50 percent of respondents to MissionSquare’s collaborative survey on state and local government workforces believed their efforts to recruit Gen Z employees or new workforce entrants were somewhat (47 percent) or very (3 percent) successful. On top of changing some of the requirements for positions, marketing is a big factor in successful recruitments and public-sector HR professionals have had to find new ways to reach younger generations of workers previously missed by traditional recruitment practices.

One change is in the use of social media to connect with qualified candidates. Unlike private-sector jobs that often allow or benefit from specific kinds of social media usage or innovative job application avenues, the public sector’s attempts at broadening their workplace pool of applicants must follow established policies and standards for recruitment, marketing and applications.

“HR departments are adding to what they've already been doing. They still have to post the jobs the way they've been doing on their website because there are criteria, rules and regulations around that,” says Cara Woodson Welch, chief executive officer of the Public Sector HR Association (PSHRA). “But they're using social media more effectively now. They're also trying to develop college partnerships or working together with high school programs. They even do some video advertising.”

Social media is one of the primary ways that Gen Z finds jobs and makes career connections, but state and local governments aren’t necessarily able to use the same recruitment tactics as the private sector. Due to privacy concerns, cities and counties have to be careful advertising or even posting on TikTok, the social media platform favored by Gen Z to keep up with the latest trends and as a search engine.

While a sponsored “Get Ready With Me For Work” video for the U.S. military might go viral and draw eyes to recruiting sites, a similar video for a day in the life of a DMV worker or a school bus driver probably won’t have the same effect. What does seem to work? Organic content like the videos some public-sector employees make on their breaks has been effective, despite restrictive social media policies that often target TikTok specifically.

The Mission Calls

Another driving factor in getting Gen Z into the public sector is the importance of public service. Younger adults who work in government care about their communities. Gen Z, similar to millennials, are a generation that gets loud about political issues and those issues motivate them on everything from what they buy, where they go to school and what career they ultimately aim for. Working in the public sector is often driven by the belief in an agency’s given mission or the chance to become a part of something bigger than themselves.

According to Woodson Welch, Gen Z wants to become part of a mission and it’s something that has led them to look at the public sector for work. Gen Z wants to know that their job is helping their communities or the planet. They want to know that what they’re doing and where they’re working is helping someone. As a result, many Gen Z workforce entrants are asking employers strong questions about their concerns.

They’re interested in learning about environmental impacts of their potential job, the employer’s stances on key political issues and how the social media policy at a job might keep them from expressing their personal concerns about social and political issues.

“I believe we see a lot more of [mission-driven employees] coming in, and workplaces have to be prepared to understand that people who come to work for them really do care about the community and want to make sure that what they're working on is absolutely a benefit,” says Woodson Welch. “So, we see a lot more questions [from Gen Z] about ‘Are you standing up and you know, really looking at diversity?,’ ‘Are you looking at equity?,’ ‘Are you looking at inclusion?,’ 'Is it just words, or are you actually putting things into place?’ That's what I see more of right now.”

Compensation, Communication and Retention

Once HR professionals and recruiters have succeeded in recruiting and hiring Gen Z employees for local government positions, the other half of the battle remains: retaining them. In the public sector, the most common reason respondents to a recent MissionSquare survey aged 35 and younger consider changing jobs — often exiting the public sector entirely — was the desire for a higher salary.

Other reasons included the lack of a promotion or a wish to advance their careers, feeling burnt out from job-related stress and wanting a job that provides more satisfaction and meaning. At every level, a common complaint is feeling as if there’s a lack of value to the position, either in the amount of compensation or in the way that they’re perceived or valued by their employer and within the culture of their jobs.

“Once your agency has hired Gen Z employees, you've got to work just as hard to keep them as you did to get them, and the only way you're going to keep them is to adjust to their world, not make them adjust to the old policies, the old way of doing it,” says Melissa Barker, VP of practice development at Duffy Group Inc. “Let their ideas be heard. Let them feel like they're actually contributing, and they're not just pushing paper, they want to be heard, they want to contribute. They want to help drive the mission forward. And in order to do so you need to take some of their ideas.”

Workers don’t just want to know that what they’re doing matters: They also want to know that they’re being seen and are valued in the workplace. And with Gen Z, they want to know that up front, right alongside compensation for their labor. Gen Z is highly sought after by both the private and public sectors, and that means they know what they have to offer … They just want employers to recognize that too.
Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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