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Millennials in Government — or Not?

What's happening with millennials in government? Are new strategies needed to attract and retain young people into public-sector jobs? Let's explore.

The top three house-hunting rules worldwide are: “location, location, location.”  There is even a Channel 4 TV series in the United Kingdom (UK) by the same name.

In the same way, most public- and private-sector managers would say, “talent, talent, talent” is what they are looking for in order to achieve their business goals. Note: I would add ‘staff selection criteria’ such as positive attitude, good work ethic, team player, excellent communicator, humble and a few other related items under the wider talent umbrella, but let’s move on.

Which brings us (again) to the seemingly never-ending question: How do you attract and retain the right talent in government?

I’d like to focus the question a bit more in this piece and take a deeper dive into recent reports and new data regarding millennials — those now entering the workforce who were born between (approximately) 1980 and 2000.  

There are numerous studies telling us about the views of millennials, also called Gen Y, but we also must remember that much of that data is subject to change as this group enters into the workforce in larger numbers.  

What is now clear is that millennials are now the largest generation with 75.4 million in the U.S., overtaking baby boomers at 74.9 million people. Also, millennials will make up approximately 75 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2030.

Here are eight things that Business Insider thinks we need to know about millennials at work:

  1. The gender wage gap is shrinking with the millennial generation. 
  2. Many millennials don't think workers should be expected to stay with their employer more than a year.  
  3. Highly educated millennials are facing higher rates of underemployment.
  4. Millennials are having a much harder time achieving financial independence than previous generations. 
  5. Millennials are the most educated generation in history.
  6. Millennials are ambitious and eager for their careers to take off.
  7. Millennials were more likely to say they want a manager who is friendly.
  8. Millennials want to own their own businesses.
Millennials and Public Service

So how can government at the federal, state and local levels attract and retain millennial talent? There have been several reports, surveys and detailed studies looking at this question over the past year.

Here are some top stories and research worth noting:

Partnership for Public Service: “The greatest challenge for federal agencies is recruiting and retaining younger employees, those who represent the foundation of the workforce in the years ahead,” said the Partnership for Public Service in its study, Improving the Employee Experience.

Deloitte Press: The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016 — Winning over the next generation of leaders 

Two-thirds of Millennials express a desire to leave their organizations by 2020. Businesses must adjust how they nurture loyalty among Millennials or risk losing a large percentage of their workforces. ... Here’s a summary of the main points: Millennials have one foot out the door Millennials’ values do not change as they progress professionally Millennials want business to shift its purpose It’s not too late to earn Millennials’ loyalty Millennials Shunning Government Jobs: Government No Longer Getting the Best and Brightest

Maybe they can smell the rotting morale of federal workers, but for some reason, millennials — people under 30 — are now avoiding working for the federal government in record numbers. Long considered the government’s source of its “best and brightest” employees, millennials now comprise only 6.6% of the federal workforce, compared to 9.1% as recently as 2010 and the fewest since 2005, according to a new survey by the Partnership for Public Service. In addition, the percentage of younger millennials — those under age 25 — in the federal workforce has fallen from 2% in 2010, to just 0.9% in 2015. By comparison, statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 23.5% of the entire U.S. workforce is under age 30.
Federal News Radio Special Report and Analysis: What Millennials Really Want From Federal Service.  and Millennials want to stay, if government grasps the new reality

Abygail Mangar, a 24-year-old engineer, has a passion for public service. ... When she heard she may have the opportunity to take advantage of a DoT program that would help her pay for school, Mangar told her supervisors she was interested. But the program only is available to permanent employees, and Mangar isn’t one. ... “I’m told a lot about retirement, and retirement is definitely something that’s important, but I have things I need to pay for now,” Mangar said. “Being able to have a pay jump from doing a degree to being able to pay for loans is a big thing for me. Having loan forgiveness is a big thing. The major concerns of someone who’s a boomer are not the same thing as someone who’s a millennial, and I don’t think the older generation understands that.” Report on OPM Study

The Office of Personnel Management released a study boasting that Millennials are the happiest government employees of any generation. Of those surveyed, 86 percent claim their work is important, 83 percent claim their bosses treat them with respect, and 66 percent feel their bosses support their personal development. What’s shocking about this report is that in spite of being so happy, young people leave their government jobs after a short 3.8 years. This is slightly higher than the overall Millennial average (including the private sector) of about three years; in contrast, the national retention average regardless of age is 4.6 years. 5 Ways to Get Millennials to Choose Government

Government workers, like the rest of us, are getting older. Now that the Great Recession is behind us, the long-predicted "brain drain" of Baby Boomers retiring from the public workforce may finally be upon us. Governments will need a strategy for replacing these workers. That strategy — for budgetary reasons if nothing else — must involve appealing to the millennial generation, and particularly those currently in college and graduate school. Unfortunately government is falling short in its efforts to recruit millennials at the precise moment when recruiting them might be most important. ...
Washington Post: Millennials actually like government work and other myths about them:

Here are four myths discussed (and why these are not true):

  1. They have higher turnover rates than older generations.
  2. They’re less passionate than older workers about their jobs in government.
  3. They don’t stick around — they’ll decamp to the private sector in a heartbeat.
  4. It’s harder to recruit them for public service than previous generations.
Republic 3.0: Federal Government’s Millennial Talent Gap  Broken hiring practices are to blame, says Max Stier, President of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “A lot of millennials are interested in government,” Stier says, “The problem is our government doesn’t pull them in.”

State and Local Resources 

  While most of the reference materials listed so far review federal government's research and efforts at attracting and retaining millennials, these same issues are high priorities for state and local government leaders as well. This recent presentation by Doug Robinson, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) Executive Director, lists human resources issues (including talent management) as a top ten CIO priority at #8 on the list. 

Dr. Alan R. Shark, Executive Director of the Public Technology Institute (PTI), also talks about "the human element" and the coming "retirement boom" in this presentation on counties and cities

 And the Center for Digital Government (CDG) puts this topic even higher in their survey of local government CIO priorities. This presentation from Beyond the Beltway 2016 puts hiring and retaining competent IT personnel as the #4 priority overall. So it is clear that millennials in government is (or should be) top of the mind for government leaders.

But what would an ideal job look like for a millennial? Check out this video:


A Family Perspective on Millennials in Government

As a father with two millennial daughters, this topic is more than academic research for me. I have invested more than 30 years of my life working in or directly supporting various government agencies around the world at the federal and state levels, and I have seen a major shift in the attitudes of new college graduates, especially in technology-related jobs.  

No doubt, the financial benefits and drawbacks of public service have changed since I entered the federal workforce in the '80s. Nevertheless, I still tell many young people that government is a great way to start a career, help society, have an action-packed career and see the world. Yes — I would do it over again without any regrets.

But this is mainly about the views of my children’s generation. Many millennials, like my daughter Katherine, are just entering the workforce for the first time. What are their perspectives on careers in government and the role of government? Here’s a mini interview on that topic:

Dan (Katherine’s father): Katherine, you just graduated with a degree in Elementary Education and wanted to work to help children from inner cities. But you chose a nonprofit. The first person in the video above said that (if he could do his dream job) he would run a “non-government organization.” Would a government job be as appealing to you? Why or why not?

Katherine: There is a deeply rooted desire in every human to make a difference in the world. A belief I strongly hold to is that if you want to change the world, it starts by changing yourself. As such, I am blessed to work with a nonprofit called Youth Haven. Youth Haven is a camp for at-risk, impoverished children who can come free of charge to a place where they are taught just how special they truly are! — How does this relate to government? Our government’s original intent was to provide a “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all people. As I think of the disadvantaged children I get to work with, I know that our government is seeking to create a better world for these kids. Whatever facet of government (whether in politics, foreign relations or technology,) they are making a difference and creating the world for these precious children. For that purpose, I think government jobs are critical. Still, I am blessed to be at Youth Haven.

Dan: When you think about possibly working in government, what comes to mind (in general). That is, are you excited, intrigued or bored?

Katherine: The purpose of government is to serve and defend its people. With that being said, government has the greatest potential and ability to serve the world — in particular, help those who are disadvantaged. That is both intriguing and exciting. But it is worth saying that such jobs also come with great responsibility. If the right government role was available in the future, I could be intrigued to apply.

Dan: Do you think your views are typical of your peers?

Katherine: I think my views are shared by many, though perhaps not expressed the same way. My generation (like all generations) wants to create a better world. If we can be shown that government is truly behind the same mentality, then I think most millennials would agree with my remarks.

Dan: What do you think governments should do to attract and retain more millennials?

Katherine: For governments to draw more millennials, I think they need to remember what their main purpose is. Creating the provision of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all demographics, government has the best chance to attract and nurture this formative generation.

Dan: Thanks, Katherine, for sharing your passion for working with disadvantaged children with us. You remind me that Stephen Covey once said: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” I think this applies to tech and non-tech careers.

And the main thing right now for government agencies is attracting and retaining talent in order to achieve their specific missions.


Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.