Will Government Entice Millennials With Unlimited Vacation Days?

A host of private-sector companies are offering unlimited vacation time to employees, but public-sector CIOs aren't sure the practice is feasible for technologists in government.

by / October 31, 2014

A job offering unlimited vacation days and a stipend to finance an annual break from the daily grind sounds like a pipe dream. But it is in fact a reality for employees at a growing number of private-sector companies.

Netflix, Motley Fool and FullContact are among the employers offering an unlimited time-off perk, according to FoxNews.com. Richard Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, told Fox that infinite vacation days is appealing to millennials, who generally prefer spending money on experiences rather than purchasing material possessions.

The idea has caught the eye of public-sector CIOs, whose organizations are competing with top tech companies to recruit and retain young IT talent. But experts believe that while unlimited vacation time looks appealing on the surface, it’s likely not feasible in government.

In an email to Government Technology, Utah CIO Mark VanOrden said flexible work schedules can be a good recruiting tool. He explained that Utah uses incentives such as telecommuting and flexible hours to create a positive working environment for employees.

When it comes to unlimited vacation, however, VanOrden admitted he hadn’t researched it enough to know whether it would be an effective lure for prospective technologists. But he wasn’t confident that more time off would really make a difference.

“I admit that at first glance, I am skeptical,” he said.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, Calif., said he felt that while the public sector has its challenges recruiting high-profile technologists, the type of people government wants aren’t driven by more time off. So while adopting an “unlimited” vacation policy might enable agencies to get out in front with a trend the private sector has, it’s not something Reichental would make a priority.

Instead, Reichental said he believes governments should take baby steps, such as improving an archaic and frustrating application process.

“We need smart, motivated people to work in government more than ever and we’re not attracting them, generally,” he said. “But they want awesome challenges, big problems to solve and they want to know they are making a difference and are respected. These are the things that motivate your star players, not extra vacation.”

Not Practical

In addition to motivational factors, a number of everyday hurdles exist for the public sector to effectively offer unlimited vacation days to employees. First and foremost is the fact that people don’t take the vacation they already earn and have.

Dow told Fox that Americans leave approximately 429 million vacation days on the table every year. Reichental wasn’t surprised. He said the problem isn’t that people want to go away for longer stretches of time – it’s that people aren’t stepping away from the office at all, or if they do, only for a day or two.

In addition, Reichental pointed out that if you take a close look at Netflix’s policy, you’ll find a number of conditions in place for an employee to take advantage of increased vacation. A person’s work needs to be completed, the time off can’t conflict with organization priorities and other stipulations.

“The reality is, everyone realizes they can’t be away from a project that long,” Reichental said. “So I think there are practicalities that make [unlimited vacation] not the big thing people think it is.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.