With five distinct generations working together, today’s workplace is perhaps the most unique in modern history. The so-called “silver tsunami” of retirements has yet to fully materialize, and older employees — Baby Boomers and Traditionalists — are thriving as their younger peers — Gen X and Millennials — move into more senior roles and a new, lesser-defined generation, sometimes called “Generation Z,” enters the workforce.
Adults under the age of 38 now comprise the largest proportion of the U.S. workforce, representing 65 million working Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2025, Millennials will comprise 75 percent of the global workforce, according to Deloitte.1
For this reason, it is critical for government leaders to understand the changing career preferences of the incoming generation of workers and young professionals, especially as their own needs and services continue to become more digital.
To better understand these dramatic shifts, the Center for Digital Government (CDG) surveyed more than 2,000 early-in-career Americans about their professional aspirations and expectations (see the survey results at govtech.com/workforcereport). This paper highlights key insights from that report, along with reflections from nearly a dozen state and local government CIOs on how to continue attracting the best and brightest to public service.
About the survey
Data in this paper is based on a nationwide CDG survey of 2,046 young professionals between the ages of 18 and 30, conducted in early 2020. All (100 percent) respondents were currently employed in either private or public sector roles. While respondents represent the full spectrum of employed workers under the age of 30, the plurality (41 percent) were between the ages of 23 and 26.
What is most important to employees?
● Having a higher salary
● Serving and helping the public
● Making a difference
● Solving difficult or complicated challenges
● Engaging in simple work with reachable day-to-day goals
● Helping a team meet sales goals to make bonuses
● Using the most advanced technologies available
For many state and local governments, attracting and retaining the next generation of government workers is part of broader strategies that reflect a rapidly evolving workplace. For example, Massachusetts CIO Curtis Wood points to the commonwealth’s Modern Workplace 2030 initiative, a collaboration among the CIO’s office and the state’s business and HR organizations. The initiative is a coordinated effort to create a more nimble, remote workforce with less reliance on traditional office space in Boston and elsewhere in the commonwealth.
“We thought we had an aggressive timeframe, and then COVID-19 hit and everything changed,” Wood says.
The resulting near-universal shift to remote work in early 2020 has provided an early glimpse of what the hybrid work environment of the future may look like in both the private and public sector. But how does this match up to the expectations of the next generation of workers?
According to the CDG survey, next-generation workers ranked salary considerations as their top professional objective but serving the public and making a difference followed closely behind. More than half (51 percent) of respondents said educating, protecting, serving and helping the public was one of the most attractive reasons to work for government agencies.
That dynamic is not necessarily new, according to Mike Leonardo, executive director of the Fresno County Transportation Authority.
“When I started, it was clear that if you wanted to make money you went private,” he says. “If you wanted security and the opportunity to serve, you went public.”
However, government leaders point to new dynamics in the next generation of workers, who rank solving difficult or complicated challenges near the top of their professional objectives.
“Young workers are more inclined to embrace being a public servant because they want to be difference makers,” says Jim Weaver, CIO for the state of Washington.
What are the least attractive reasons to work for state and local government?
“We use that as a competitive recruiting and retention advantage,” says Tennessee state CIO Stephanie Dedmon. “Not only can we offer you the opportunity to give back, but since our IT environment is fairly centralized, you could be working on a problem for daycare services today, but tomorrow you could be working on public safety and identifying new solutions for our troopers’ cars. It is rare to work on IT solutions across a variety of programs and services. We’ve seen in Tennessee that it’s attractive.”
King County, Wash. CIO Tanya Hannah agrees. “What COVID-19 has shown is that government can really be cool. Where else can you go and have an immediate impact on your community?“
However, there are challenges that government leaders must address. Along with lower pay, survey respondents cited other public sector workplace challenges, including slower adoption of new technologies, less opportunity for advancement and fewer networking opportunities.
“There’s still a bit of a stigma for working for state government,” Dedmon acknowledges.
Younger employees’ need for change can also be a challenge. Over the last two decades, the number of jobs people have had five years after entering the workforce has nearly doubled. People who graduated between 1986 and 1990 averaged 1.6 jobs, and people who graduated between 2006 and 2010 averaged nearly 2.85 jobs.2
Studies of more recent college graduates suggest the trend continues to accelerate. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) 2018 college graduates, for example, envision staying at their current organization — in any role — for four years or less. Nearly half (44 percent) plan to stay for less than half that time.3
“Next-generation workers are very interested in solving problems, but they’re not here to make a career, and that’s okay — those days are past us. It would be nice to tap into that talent pool for three to five years,” says Weaver.
Even so, survey respondents highly valued the opportunity to have a long and steady career, along with the comprehensive benefits and dependable retirement funding commonly found in the public sector.
“If you’re good at what you do, if you’re flexible and willing to take on challenges, you can have a great career with opportunities for new challenges and promotions,” Dedmon says.
How can government reconcile employees’ dual desires for a career and the urge to solve problems and move on? The way technology responsibilities are apportioned in state and local agencies may provide a unique opportunity for technology workers to move laterally between different agencies and a central IT department.
“They want to solve a problem and move on to the next big challenge, and as a central IT provider, I would prefer that you have that business perspective because that’s who we support,” Weaver says. “We have to enable and provide those opportunities.”
There is little doubt the pandemic will result in permanent changes to what work looks like in both the public and private sectors.
“Telework is here to stay, and all technology plans going forward should take that into account,” says Ed Winfield, CIO of Maricopa County, Ariz.
Maricopa and many other state and local governments had begun scaling up remote working arrangements before the pandemic. Tennessee, for example, instituted a formal alternative workplace policy nearly a decade ago and had nearly 30 percent of employees working from home at least part of the time before the pandemic hit. And like their private sector counterparts, few government leaders see a complete return to a traditional office environment anytime soon.
According to PwC, more than half of business leaders (54 percent) say they plan to make remote work a permanent option. Importantly, the pandemic has convinced leaders in and out of government that remote work is viable. Only 26 percent of those surveyed by PwC in spring 2020 were concerned about lost productivity — a dramatic drop from 63 percent before the pandemic.4
“Those agencies that held out and were skeptical that people could be productive are seeing that it does work,” Dedmon says.
While the transition to remote work has gone well, one surprise is the new generation of workers may be the ones missing in-person collaboration the most. When given a choice between telecommuting and working in open, collaborative office environments, a majority of CDG survey respondents (57 percent) chose the ability to collaborate in person.
“I remember one of the best parts of early career jobs in government was that I could meet other young people like me,” says CDG Co-Director Phil Bertolini, former deputy county executive and CIO for Oakland County, Mich. “As we grew up with our careers, there was this whole group of people I grew up with.” Today’s workers, he adds, “want to be together, but they’re very adept at doing things digitally. That’s why I believe a hybrid environment is the way to go.”
However, this is only true if technology can follow suit and enable rich collaboration in virtual settings, says Bertolini and Teri Takai, Co-Director for CDG and a former CIO for the states of California and Michigan, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We went to open office concepts so people could collaborate and talk to each other and work together in teams,” says Takai. “I worry remote work is actually putting us back into technological cubicles, and we have to remember that communications need to be deliberate.”
The videoconferencing tools used for both personal and professional communication in recent months have helped, according to San Diego CIO Jonathan Behnke.
“We are discovering we can get a comparative experience to in-person collaboration with video meetings,” he says. “You don’t pick up body language and expressions in an audio meeting.”
The vast majority of CDG survey recipients — 74 percent — expect to use networked unified communications in the workplace. Putting this in place will be vital to get work done effectively.
“Major transportation projects require a cohesive team that has to exist beyond social media,” Leonardo says. “Hopefully the young employees are serious about their desire for collaboration and networking.”
The push to remote work is also an opportunity to make government workforces more inclusive and representative of the communities they serve, allowing people beyond a state capital or city with large operations to apply.
“I’d like to be more reflective of the state of Washington, and for me, this starts opening up regions of the state I haven’t had access to,” Weaver says. “I’m not going to recruit anybody from eastern Washington to come to Olympia, but I can if they can work remotely.”
Government leaders stress the value of promoting flexible work environments for all workers, but particularly for younger ones.
“In my experiences, today’s young employees want a job that offers them ample free time to enjoy life and not be wedded to the job,” says Leonardo. “Older hiring managers who remember the ‘never ask about time off’ days probably need to re-adjust their attitudes to work/ life balance issues.”
This is as much of an ongoing management challenge as a recruiting challenge, says Dedmon, whose own department does not require employees to use timecards or measure logins.
“It’s really about helping our workforce know how to supervise and manage that flexible schedule,” she says. “People can be productive for eight to nine hours a day, but it may look different from an 8-to-5 job, and that’s okay as long as you collaborate upfront on expectations.”
It is also important to ensure technology roadmaps address the employee experience.
“Getting mobile capabilities to the staff and buying the right equipment the first time is critical,” says Iowa State CIO Annette Dunn. For both the state’s private and public sector organizations, broadband access is also a challenge for recruitment and retention, she adds.
More than one-third of CDG survey respondents (34 percent) said slow adoption of technology is a negative aspect of working for state and local government. While using the latest and greatest technologies rank near the bottom of their work objectives, nearly nine in 10 (86 percent) say they always or sometimes expect an employer to provide the most advanced technologies available, and 83 percent expect to at least sometimes be invited to explore their use in the workplace.
“I think what we’re going to do about our own employees is an area where governments can be very weak — especially as the work they’re performing becomes more digital than it’s ever been as governments try to move more services online,” says Hannah.
Another challenge government leaders face is the hiring process itself, which for most governments is characterized by multiple rounds of interviews and background checks. In today’s job market, “if you’re not able to hire somebody when they’re sitting in front of you at the interview, you’re at a disadvantage,” says Bertolini. “Procurement and hiring are the two longest processes in government. Government has to take a more agile approach.”
How have you learned about what it is like to work for state and/or local government?
That starts with job advertisements themselves, which are critical. Social media postings that talk about mission as much as job requirements are a strategy employed in Tennessee.
“We have people tell their story and paint the positive side of it,” says Dedmon.
Borrowing a page from tech jobs in the private sector, government should also look at a person’s ability to learn and not focus solely on their formal education, according to Weaver.
“A lot of times, we get hung up on formal education requirements,” he says. “Education is extremely important, but I’m more interested in a person’s aptitude and learning. You can take someone with an aptitude to learn and train them.”
The fallout from the pandemic complicates one key part of recruiting — the fact that by wide margins, word of mouth is the primary way next-generation workers learn what it is like to work for state and local governments. According to the CDG survey, these workers were more than twice as likely to have learned about government from family or peers than from a formal internship experience or recruiters.
“Government is a relationship business,” says Bertolini. “In the world today, being all digital, how are you building those relationships? It’s more complicated now that you can’t walk into an office and shake someone’s hand.”
Survey responses offer one strategy. More than half (61 percent) of respondents have used online message boards or connected with current employees to research government jobs. And career fairs or cybersecurity exercises at colleges not only promote specific skills or jobs, but also illustrate what careers in government look like.
Following the model of STEM career development, government leaders should also actively engage students as early as middle school and introduce them to the ability to develop a career path.
“We need to start a lot earlier than college,” Bertolini says. “We need to talk much sooner about what the lifestyle and the career path are.”
Together, these strategies can help address the void left by personal relationships — and that may be a good thing.
“Word of mouth is currently still the most likely way to find a government job, but frankly I don’t think it’s the best way,” says Leonardo. “In my experience that system leads to a lot of nepotism and cronyism. It doesn’t get you the best and the brightest.”
Even as economic challenges loom, it is important for government leaders to continue efforts to bring the next generation of workers on board. Takai remembers that hiring freezes during past recessions resulted in a government workforce “that was missing a group of young people because we weren’t hiring during that time,” she says. “It’s going to be interesting to see whether young people want to come into government and if they have opportunities due to the budget crunch.”
The ultimate goal, Bertolini says, is to hire a diverse workforce that looks like the population of the jurisdiction — but importantly, what the population will look like three to five years in the future in order to “build a reflective workplace.”
It also will be critical for leaders to find ways to reward employees in a time of tight budgets.
“We try to identify where we can do something different,” Dedmon says.
For example, her office worked with HR to identify a formal list of certifications that translate into equity increases when completed. Introduced about six months ago, the initiative represents “an example of the kind of thing that’s meaningful to our workforce and demonstrates we want to recognize them,” she says.
Ultimately, government leaders need to continue promoting the benefits of public service.
“What government needs to do is enhance the knowledge of what it really does and the reputation of that,” Bertolini says. “Someone who has a bad experience getting a driver’s license may see government as antiquated and slow. Young people don’t want to work in an antiquated and slow environment.”
And despite the longstanding — and likely permanent — changes to the workplace going forward, it will be important to maintain the elements of public service that remain unique. Bertolini recalls discussing government careers with his own son, a member of Generation Z, who pushed back against the idea that all of government could become remote and digital. “Otherwise, we’re just Amazon,” Bertolini recalls his son saying. “We need the government dome and the township hall where people gather so the sense of community isn’t lost.”
This piece was written and produced by the Center for Digital Government Content Studio, with information and input from Cisco.
Photos provided by David Kidd
The Center for Digital Government, a division of e.Republic, is a national research and advisory institute on information technology policies and best practices in state and local government. Through its diverse and dynamic programs and services, the Center provides public and private sector leaders with decision support, knowledge and opportunities to help them effectively incorporate new technologies in the 21st century.
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