3 Cornerstones to Cultivating the Workforce of the Future

Public service may not have the lure of shiny, new private-sector jobs, but some in government are leveraging new tactics to draw in fresh talent.

RALEIGH, N.C. — There are some pretty savage stereotypes rattling around in the larger IT workforce. For example, you have your Silver Tsunami crowd: They’re “old,” stuck in their ways, and like being packed into dark, dank basement cubicle farms for nine hours a day. Then you have your millennials: the know-it-all tight-pantsers, bent on working in an office with an indoor garden and hammock, on-demand chai tea service and a nonexistent dress code — a sort of greedy hippy crossbreed.

While these examples seem (and are) extreme, it is undeniable that the up-and-coming workforce has very different expectations from their predecessors. Companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook have been an attractive lure to tech talent at the public sector’s expense. For one, because these companies pay better than a typical government job, and two, they offer an escape from the beige prisons their parents reported to for 20-plus years.

So, what is there to be done — past jacking up salaries — to attract new blood into public service?

The good news is that the battle for better recruitment and retention is far from over. Government as a whole seems to be catching on, and is steadily working to create an environment that the next generation of employee can relate to.

As officials in North Carolina see it, the challenge before them is one that holds growth potential for the sector. Chief Technology and Innovation Officer Eric Ellis and Deanté Tyler, deputy director and innovation officer with the North Carolina Innovation Center (iCenter), discussed what they see as the cornerstones to cultivating and maintaining the next wave of the workforce at the North Carolina Digital Government Summit* on Aug. 31.

Among their talking points were the issues of new technology, the use of space, and how people and organizations operate within government. At the iCenter, a collaborative space is used as a testing ground for technology. Wtihin the physical office layout, the pair work to vet tools and techniques that can be applied across all state agencies.

And their logic is sound. In both the education and workforce spaces, Ellis said younger workers have an expectation of being able to work with one another freely — among other things. Here are three changes governments can make to attract and retain workers of the future.

1. Create a Hybrid Office Environment

“The physical manifestation of tearing down those walls was also tearing down the siloes we have in state government, and it’s represented here.” Ellis said. “We are seeing kids and the workforce spend an abundant amount of time actually doing collaborative project-based learning, and that is how they think they are solving problems, meaning when they get into the workforce, there is an expectation that they don’t have a single cube to themselves.”

But this is not to say that the entire office environment should be transformed into an open floorplan. Tyler said the reality of the modern office is that not everyone will feel comfortable or be able to work publicly.

Limitations to the type of work being done and the need for privacy are key considerations. While a coder or engineer might be at home in an open office, the very thought of being out in the midst of things would be a nonstarter for a human resources professional. 

“More and more of our workforce is expecting an open space. Not all of the work profiles, not every position, every profile will be able to work in such an open environment,” Tyler said. “There are certain roles that need privacy based on the type of work that they deal with or the content they normally deal with.”

The duo advocates for the hybrid approach to the office environment, where staff can collaborate in the open space, but retreat as needed to the more traditional cubicle.

2. Meet Tech Needs of the Modern Worker

While workers of the past may have been content with a state-issued Blackberry, many now prefer using personal devices, like iPhone or Android smartphones. This, of course, comes with substantial ire for the security-minded, but Ellis and Tyler said there is great value if leveraged correctly. 

“Now that does put pressure on IT professionals to be a little bit more flexible, and to the enterprise architect that can drive us a little bit insane to a degree," Ellis said. "But to us in procurement, we have… to do a little more due diligence.”

But they warn that if the call for more flexibility goes unanswered, IT teams should expect to see more unsanctioned devices making their way into government offices — policy or no policy.

Things like smartwatches can also provide a potential value to the organization. They point to the technology and built-in emergency call features as valuable safety tools for those working in the field in such areas as Child Protective Services. 

“There are a lot of different technology decisions that we can make that will enable not just the newer workforce, but the existing workforce, to become more mobile, more adept to changes," Tyler said, "and will allow them to think outside the cube, if you will.”

Within their own organization, Ellis said surveys have helped to equip various agencies with the appropriate gear, rather than limiting the tools they receive to “high-end” or “low-end” laptops. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all for IT workers, nor is there one-size-fits-all for every type of worker," Tyler said. "One HR worker might work differently from another HR worker, and we say that as IT professionals to provide the IT resources for all those different types of workers.”

3. Foster Collaboration and Flexibility

As for the people and culture that make up state government, Ellis and Tyler explained that the up-and-coming workforce expects collaboration, flexibility in their tools and organizations that evolve with the times. 

“We’re seeing some staffing and people change as well," Ellis said, "and when I say that, there are different roles in today’s world than there were just a few years ago. And the positioning of those roles inside of an organization is changing too."

*The North Carolina Digital Government Summit is produced by the Government Technology events division and the Center for Digital Government, both owned and operated by e.Republic Inc., the same parent company as Government Technology magazine and Govtech.com.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.