Generation Gap

Generation Gap

by / August 31, 2005
When Sara Wilson, director of the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, said only 5 percent of the state's classified work force was 27 years old or younger, I nearly dropped the phone. Wilson also said the state's payroll includes 71,986 full-time-equivalent employees.

My math skills aren't all that hot, but even I can deduce that the Virginia state government employs roughly 3,600 people under the age of 27. That's not good. In fact, you could even say it's unforgivable.

All those smart young people out there, and Virginia can only manage to attract 3,600 of them to work in state-level public-sector jobs? This is not to shame Virginia, a state known both for the high number of technology heavyweights headquartered in the state, and for its progressive adoption of IT to create and offer e-government services.

If a state like Virginia can't attract younger workers to government, what hope do other states have? This is a real problem for the public sector, and it comes at a bad time.

It's no secret that states face massive numbers of retirees in the near future, yet no younger generation of public servants is set to take over.

Who's at fault here? Is anybody?

Plenty of talk has centered on the alleged "me-first" mentality of today's younger work force. The rationale seems to be that modern workers don't care much about finding a job and staying at it for five, 10 or 20 years because they're a bunch of baby-faced mercenaries looking for the biggest paycheck.

There's no denying the importance of money, but simply bemoaning the pecuniary bent of the younger generation doesn't solve the problem -- nor does simply throwing money at them, though that would certainly draw a crowd.

It's more than that.

Young employees want to work for organizations that move quickly and act decisively. They want to work at places where they will learn new and exciting things. When young people think of government, they don't imagine a fast-acting, confident organization. They think of molasses in January.

Government, however, needs to hire young people to better serve the young constituency that has been raised on the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging. What the old guard thinks is cool is hopelessly square in the eyes of today's connected demographic.

This is an issue that's not easily resolved.

Delaware eliminated civil service protections in its IT division -- a move that CIO Tom Jarrett says allowed him to attract younger people by paying higher salaries and offering a workplace not bound by traditional hierarchy.

Oregon's Information Resources Management Division reached out to Portland State University for young blood through an innovative internship.

Other governments might need to take such steps to prove to the younger generation that the public sector isn't just about bureaucracy. Good things are done in those monolithic office buildings. It's a message that's just not getting out.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor