Study challenges perceptions of millennials in federal workforce

Study confronts notion that millennials aren't interested in government jobs, even as workforce share shrinks.

Mary Beth Gerhardt feels strongly connected to her mission to protect life and property as a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. Feeling that connection, she says, was a prerequisite for her decision to take the job.

Among her fellow millennials, Gerhardt is not alone, according to Deloitte Research. In a report published this month, the firm challenges the notion that the youngest generation of workers is not as interested in joining the federal workforce as older Americans.

The study shows that many millennials are finding that government jobs offer the meaning they want.

Gerhardt, 32, uses her advanced math and science skills to develop forecasts and track storm systems. She has worked for the NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in College Park since 2008.

"We joke around here that it's almost a calling," she said. "It's really a dream for me. It feels like I am coming in and there's a purpose for what I am doing."

Deloitte used data sets, surveys and published reports to confront conventional wisdom surrounding the turnover rate for workers born between 1980 and 1995. The firm also examined their passion for government work and the ability of federal agencies to recruit them.

"If young workers are not motivated by the promise of a stable job and a good pension in 30 years — the thinking goes — how can government agencies attract and motivate them?" asks Deloitte data scientist Peter Viechnicki, the report's author.

Millennials make up about a quarter of government employees, Viechnicki reported. They make up one-third of the U.S. workforce.

Within the federal government, the numbers are smaller. An analysis by Deloitte and the Partnership for Public Service shows that the percentage of people under 30 working for federal agencies shrank from 9 percent in 2010 to less than 7 percent in 2014.

Those numbers add to the perception that millennials are not interested in holding government jobs. Viechnicki says the number has slipped not because of lack of interest, but generational attrition.

Viechnicki says the number of young workers hired by federal agencies has been flat or declined in recent years. Some young employees have left for the private sector.

Budget cuts, pay freezes and the government shutdown of 2013, meanwhile, are blamed for stifling the recruitment and retention of federal workers of all ages.

Viechnicki says it is too soon to know whether millennials are drawn more to nontraditional public service jobs outside government — such as social entrepreneurship and consulting work — or if the share who work in the private sector is a result of slowdowns in government hiring.

J. Gerald Suarez, a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and a former White House adviser, says many government agencies such as NASA and the intelligence agencies do appeal to millennials. But in his experience, he says, the newest members of the workforce are turned off by bureaucracy and stagnant institutions.

To attract them, Suarez said, agencies should show a "pathway to a purpose." Instead of highlighting how they can work their way up the career ladder, he says, they should show them how their work will make a difference.

"They want to be unshackled by policies and regulations that restrict them from seeking new possibilities," Suarez said. "They like to work with people who inspire them and pull the future into the present."

Susan Brennan, who heads the career services office at Bentley University in Massachusetts, says paying attention to what kind of work environment appeals to millennials is smart business practice for private companies or government agencies.

Bentley's student surveys indicate that millennials are not necessarily looking to hop from one job to the next after graduation, but they are not afraid of taking steps to manage their careers.

"They have so much information at their fingertips: 'Am I being paid competitively. What other options are out there for me?'" Brennan said. "They don't want to leave, but they are also proactive enough to take action."

Viechnicki says his research challenges the idea that turnover among millennials is higher then that of other generations. He says much of that narrative has been shaped by factors outside their control, such as the economy, and by decisions they make to ease the burden of student loan debt.

"When millennials get into the government workforce, they behave a lot like other generations did, and some of their numbers are more positive than other generations," he said.

Viechnicki says Deloitte's internal think tank produced the report to help keep the company's government clients informed.

It also offers suggestions on ways that federal agencies can attract and keep millennial workers. One is to better promote development opportunities that have been shown to be a key motivator for young workers.

Agencies also should focus on encouraging technology workers to join government, the report says. Fiscal uncertainty might be influencing candidates' decisions to apply for high-demand government jobs, such as cybersecurity analysts.

Viechnicki says federal agencies would be wise to find ways to appeal to as many millennials as possible to counter the retirement tsunami expected as baby boomers age out of the workforce.

"They really do care about purpose and making an impact," he said. "In many ways, the government is the ideal employer for many [millennials]. The government is a place you can feel a part of something much bigger than yourself."

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