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Baltimore, MD. -- Hamilton Turner, 28, senior director of engineering and research at OptioLabs, had considered working for the federal government but decided to work for a private company instead.
Baltimore, MD. -- Hamilton Turner, 28, senior director of engineering and research at OptioLabs, had considered working for the federal government but decided to work for a private company instead. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Hamilton Turner has the kind of computer engineering and data analysis skills federal employers like the National Security Agency want, but when it came time to head into the workforce, he chose instead a job at OptioLabs, one of Baltimore's up-and-coming cyber startups.

"I'd be going for secret or top-secret positions, and that just wasn't something I was terribly interested in," said Turner, 28. "I can do work where I can't talk about it, but, on the average, I enjoy the camaraderie that comes with being able to share your work."

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Turner's choice is one a growing number of millennials are making. The generation now accounts for 36 percent of the civilian workforce but is under-represented in the federal workforce. Adults ages 18 to 34 made up about a quarter of federal workers in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What millennials look for in a job may explain why so many are choosing private-sector work over public service, experts said. While their parents may have sought jobs with stability, a hefty paycheck and the promise of upward mobility, many millennials instead put a premium on positions where they can be creative, work as part of a team and feel they are making a difference.

But nearly a third of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire by 2019, according to the Government Accountability Office, so federal agencies must find ways to compete with the private sector for the next generation of workers.

"If we don't change, we're missing out on some key opportunities to get them in the door," said Lisa Dorr, a senior cybersecurity workforce development adviser for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's office of information security, in remarks at a recent CyberMaryland panel.

A September GAO report, which defined millennials as workers 39 years old or younger, found that some agencies are more popular among that demographic.

The Social Security Administration, which has headquarters in Woodlawn, comes in above average, with millennials accounting for 33.8 percent of workers. Meanwhile, millennials represented just over 25 percent of the workforce at Health and Human Services, which includes the Baltimore-based Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The report noted a few factors in recent years that could have limited opportunities for millennials to join the federal workforce, including hiring and pay freezes, the federal budget sequestration and furloughs.

But federal agencies are up against a reputation of being rigid and drab — a far cry from the modern dream workplaces, with foosball tables and stocked refrigerators, envisioned by some millennials.

Millennials accustomed to immediate results may find the government's jobs website, usajobs.gov, clunky and the hiring process too drawn out.

That was the case for David Atlas, a 20-year-old mathematics student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has an offer to work at T. Rowe Price Group when he graduates in December 2017.

"You could definitely say there's something to that — that people view it as a lot of bureaucracy," Atlas said. "Even recruiters — they're not allowed to take resumes and call you back. You have to fill out a ton of paperwork just to get started."

Atlas said he's happy at T. Rowe, where he's currently an intern. He gets to work on a team of experts in his field on projects where he feels he's making an important contribution.

The good news for employers — both federal and commercial — is that they don't necessarily need to make drastic changes to improve their appeal to younger workers, said Anne Donovan, who studies millennials as a people innovation leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

A survey by the firm found that millennials have three top priorities in a career: teamwork, appreciation and support for their contribution, and flexibility in their schedule. What's more, millennials were willing to compromise their desired pay and additional benefits to land a job with these features.

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"These aren't big things people are asking for," Donovan said. "It's a behavior change on the ground to make the environment more pleasing and more sustainable."

Still, changing the way an organization's leadership thinks about workplace culture is a challenge.

When PricewaterhouseCoopers surveyed Generation X workers, who are in many cases the bosses hiring millennials, analysts found priorities very different from the wants of younger workers. Gen Xers want jobs with control and impressive paychecks, and where they are challenged, Donovan said.

To make their workplaces welcoming to millennials, employers may need to be more open-minded, she said.

"We can't put our lens as more experienced workers on them and say, 'This is bad,'" Donovan said. "You have to be open to their creativity and their ability to multitask."

The Office of Personnel Management has been working with agencies to make these kind of changes.

Aware that younger workers want to do meaningful work, many agencies are marketing their missions and opportunities to make a difference, instead of promoting the idea of a lifetime federal career with a single employer.

"Agencies have realized they need to amplify and tailor their recruiting messages to encourage students, recent graduates and advanced-degree holders to consider a federal career," a spokesperson for the Office of Personnel Management said in an email.

About 44 percent of new hires in fiscal 2015 were under 35 years old, according to the OPM.

A personal connection goes a long way with young job seekers, said Caroline Baker, assistant vice president of careers and corporate partnerships at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

UMBC works with lots of recruiters, including those from federal government agencies. Baker said the organizations that have the most success are those that make a point to come to campus, get to know students and talk to them about why their organization would be a good fit.

As demand grows within the private sector for highly skilled math and science students, the federal agencies that want to compete for talent have had to step up their recruitment game, Baker said.

The NSA, for example, has a much larger presence on campus compared to 10 years ago, she said. Now the agency is a regular at the university's career fairs, sends recruiters into classrooms and even coaches students about the government's security clearance process.

"They've really made a tremendous investment in time," Baker said. "A lot of college recruiting is still connecting in person — some agencies may not be resourced the same way, and don't have the budget or people to be on campus."

For some millennials, a job with meaning and public service go hand-in-hand.

Rebecca Morrison was so appreciative of her country after a two-year stint in China with the Peace Corps that she decided to pursue work with the federal government. She worked for the Peace Corps' volunteer recruitment office for four years and is now interning at the National Park Service while she earns her master's degree in sociology at UMBC.

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Morrison said she knows she might be able to make more money in the private sector, but she's committed to trying out public service for a while longer.

"You kind of swear in to government service and swear in to serve your country," Morrison said. "There's something a little more meaningful about that for me than working in the private sector."

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