When 28-year-old Amy James* worked for the US government, she’d marvel at how the man sitting across from her — a senior economist — could avoid work at all costs. He would play online chess for hours. He’d trap unsuspecting colleagues into listening to long tirades about the state of government. Once a week, he’d even clip his fingernails at his desk.
The economist had a GS15 pay grade: he earned in the ballpark of $105,123 to $136,659 annually. James watched upper management shuffle him from portfolio to portfolio — bureau committees to budget task forces — but never get fired, in spite of his notorious laziness. Meanwhile, James’ boss was pushing her to go back to school: without a Master’s degree, he said, she would never be promoted from the office assistant job she’d held for two and a half years.
These are just a couple of the reasons James, who earned a third of the economist’s salary, became disillusioned by government work. Well-spoken, thoughtful and tech-savvy, James — who, three years later, is a software engineer in the private sector — seems like the ideal government recruit. But she was driven out by a system that prizes process over results, degrees over experience and age over youth.
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But slow-moving hiring, outdated management tactics and bad PR still hold most governments back from attracting top talent. Here’s a wider look at the problem, and four tips to help civil services around the world recruit and retain young workers.
Why government needs young people…
Donald Kettl, author and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the need to hire youth into America’s ageing government “could not be more important”.
“If this continues, the costs of government will go up, its ability to perform will continue to decline and citizens’ trust in government will weaken further,” Kettl said.
Studies show that older workers are more expensive: they require more healthcare spending and they’re closer to the age of retirement, which means increased pension payouts.
Some research also shows that older workers are less productive and slower to learn new skills. This is particularly pertinent as the US government tries to digitise public services. Some 45% of the US civil service is aged 50 and above; they grew up before the Internet was even invented.
And when America’s ageing government workforce does retire — what is referred to as the “silver tsunami” — it will create a massive brain drain, as government loses these long-time employees’ institutional knowledge. Without enough young workers in the pipeline to be trained, there simply isn’t enough brainpower to take their place.
Kettl’s third point is perhaps the most important: trust. The average American is 20 years younger than their congressional representative. When the disparity in age between constituent and representative is so vast, how can citizens trust politicians to represent their interests and values?
… But doesn’t hire them
First, in many ways, the US civil service is simply not designed to recruit a modern workforce: there is no government-wide hiring policy, and current processes are slow and archaic. But there’s another snag: most young Americans simply don’t want to work for government.
“If you’re young and hungry to rapidly advance in your career, entering the civil service and being part of an enormous bureaucracy doesn’t seem like an obvious path,” said Mariel Reed, 30, a former public servant and founder of CoProcure, which aims to simplify government procurement.
Although the rise of populism and Donald Trump’s presidency have propelled more women, minorities and young people to run for office, the enthusiasm has yet to extend to government work at large.
The main issue for us in recruiting young people is their perception of the civil service — that we’re bureaucratic and old-fashioned
In fact, this presidency is having the opposite effect, said Kettl: “There’s clearly a Trump effect: it is clear that many younger people are not interested in exploring government careers because of him.” Polls show that just 33% of Americans aged 15 to 34 approve of President Trump, with 60% saying he is “mentally unfit” for the office.
James, the civil servant-turned-software-engineer, said she was driven out of public service by archaic and inefficient processes. Take performance reviews as an example: in her department, office culture dictated that you give colleagues a five out of five on every question. If someone received a four-and-a-half, James said, it signalled that the person was doing something catastrophically wrong.
The trumped-up performance review system allowed older employees to get away with bad behaviour and laziness, James said.
It’s backward management and recruitment processes like these that keep young people from government work. Hiring, for example, is frustratingly inflexible, said Kettl: “So much of the human capital system is based on ‘Have I checked that box?’ ‘Have I complied with procedures?’”
Four steps to get young people into public service
To attract young people, governments need to change — and not just how they hire, but how they advertise jobs, treat employees and promote themselves. We spoke to experts about how this can be done.
1. Make government exciting again
“The main issue for us in recruiting young people is their perception of the civil service — that we’re bureaucratic and old-fashioned. We need to sell ourselves better and promote the good things we’re doing; how we’re making a difference in people’s lives,” said Jack Markiewicz, a leadership and organisational development consultant at the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Governments can’t attract young people with the promise of a lavish office, big-ticket salary or flashy perks. But studies show that, above all, young people want to do work they find meaningful. For many, public service should be ideal — the problem is that governments just aren’t good at promoting their work.
We need to feature people — it’s how you make a job relatable
Figuring out how to sell themselves is paramount to attracting the next generation to government work, according to Jodi Starkman, executive director at the Innovation Resource Centre for Human Resources. To that end, storytelling is key.
“We need to feature people — people who can tell others what they do in their job, how it makes them feel and how they’re making a contribution. It’s how you make a job relatable,” said Starkman. “Think about the position’s purpose: what would attract somebody to this job? Why would they want to work here?”
Governments should avoid only advertising positions on government portals and use social media and video creatively, said Starkman.
Job descriptions should also be overhauled: research shows that the more qualifications you include, the less certain groups — such as young people — feel comfortable applying for it. Focus on skills and potential over experience, and avoid jargon, government-speak and otherwise dull descriptions.
2. Build a funnel of interested young people
The UK has nearly double the US’ share of people under 30 in its civil service, thanks in large part to its Civil Service Fast Stream, a development program for new graduates who want to work in government
Fast Stream is competitive, which makes it prestigious: less than 5% of applications are recommended for appointment in each recruitment cycle. In 2016, 32,450 people applied for Fast Stream positions, and just 1,245 were offered jobs. “Fast streamers” are paid £28,000 ($36,470) during the three-year-program, and are expected to earn about £55,000 ($71,635) once they complete training.
However, the program has come under fire for the prevalence of white, middle-class and Oxford- and Cambridge-educated participants.
“These schemes attract young people, but what’s more important is to make government attractive to a more diverse range of people, in terms of class, race and gender,” said Leighton Andrews, a former education minister in the Welsh government who now teaches public service leadership at Cardiff Business School. “Apprenticeship programs in central and local government could be more effective.”
3. Create a supportive culture
According to a Gallup poll, the most important thing young people look for in their job hunt is the opportunity to learn and grow at work. They want autonomy and support to take risks, and to feel they have mobility and room to learn. Culture can be more important than pay when it comes to retention — which is something the UK’s DWP has taken into account.
“We recognise that we can’t always pay the most for the best candidates, for the best talent. But we’ve found it’s not just about money with young people. We offer excellent development opportunities, flexible working and a focus on people as human beings — which means their needs in terms of work-life balance,” said Markiewicz.
For James, the lack of development opportunities factored into her decision to leave. “I wish there had been more focus on professional development and real mentorship. People talked about the importance of mentors, but I never had any guidance,” she said.
Mentoring is one of the approaches identified by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team to boost diversity in government. Mentors are supposed to teach their protégé how to succeed in the workplace and sponsor them for training and assignments, which helps push young people out of their comfort zone to take on more challenging work. Studies show that as mentors work with mentees, they come to believe in their protégé’s ability to take on more difficult work.
4. Overhaul management practices — and move away from the “job for life” mentality
Governments need to change hiring to reflect today’s nature of work, which means getting accustomed to employing people for shorter amounts of time. “We shouldn’t be trying to get a 25-year-old to stay with government for a 30-year career. Young workers can’t imagine doing that anywhere, let alone government,” said Kettl.
Rather than conducting each job search individually, HR should create a pool of eligible candidates who are pre-screened and approved, so agencies can hire for the skills they need more quickly. This approach would speed up hiring to avoid losing sought-after talent, said Kettl.
The Canadian government already has a process like this in place: its Free Agents program allows a select group of highly skilled public servants to move from department to department, choosing projects that match their talents and interests. It gives employees mobility and freedom of choice, and hiring managers access to a pool of pre-vetted civil servants who are ready to work.
As for James, she said she would consider going back to government work — after working in the private sector for a few more years.
“I think what I learned working in the public service is not to work your way up in government,” she said. “They idolise private sector people. They think a lot more of you if you go back into government after working in the private sector. Maybe then, I might be able to actually be able to get their respect.” —Jennifer Guay
*The interviewee’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
(Picture credit: Flickr/m00by)