The federal government is the largest employer in the United States, with more than 2 million full-time employees. However, it’s reported that approximately 25% - or 150,000 - of federal workers plan to retire in the next five years, jeopardizing the overall well-being of the federal system, if younger workers aren’t willing to backfill such positions.
With Gen Z employees accounting for less than 2% of all federal employees, according to the non-profit Partnership for Public Service, it’s been quickly identified that making a career in government is quickly becoming a need. A recent Qualtrics study revealed that less than half of recent graduates are willing even to consider employment in the federal sector. As a result, Gen Z is massively underrepresented in the public sector, while older workers (baby boomers and Gen X) are overrepresented, posing the current recruiting challenge for the government to address and fill skill gaps, train new workers, and maintain services.
Now, the public sector is attempting a revitalization of its early-career approaches.
In 2021, President Biden’s earliest executive orders in featured targeted language aimed at agencies boosting paid internships. Two years later, federal agencies have committed to recruiting more than 35,000 interns, with specific strategies to encourage an increase in paid interns and early-career employees across their respective areas.
The state of early-career talent in the public sector
In the last two years, the federal government has witnessed an average turnover rate of 6.7% across all employees. The turnover rate for Gen Z employees in the sector was nearly double, at 12.4%. Additionally, a recent study on career aspirations by Axios and Generation Lab found that only 14% of Gen Z expressed an interest to pursue a long-term career in government or non-profit sectors. The study also found that careers in companies of all sizes are preferred by this generation over working in the federal space.
We know that Gen Z is passionate about aligning with the impact, mission, and values of an organization. The public sector is all about mission-driven services and making an impact - so why are we not seeing Gen Z flock to work in government or other public areas? Read on for our guide on how your organization can rise to the challenge of attracting, recruiting, retaining, and engaging Gen Z candidates.
Reevaluate & overhaul the hiring process
Navigating the federal hiring process can be a daunting and time-consuming endeavor. The multitude of government-specific regulations and extensive wait times can be overwhelming and mind-numbing. In fact, it’s reported that the federal hiring process takes an average of 98 days, over twice as long as the private sector. USAJobs, the primary job portal for federal jobs, can be confusing and cumbersome to navigate. Public sector job applications often require candidates to upload transcripts, references, and additional questions, in addition to the application itself. And, to make matters work, the process can feel extremely impersonal, with one Gen Z candidate likening it to “applying to a black box.”
In contrast, the private sector offers a much more straightforward, transparent, and engaging experience. Companies visit college campuses, host informational sessions, and bring back alumni or ambassadors to pitch their organization. They conduct on-campus interviews, extend offers promptly, and hire in half the time. After all this, it’s no surprise that only 42% of federal employees have full confidence in their agency’s ability to recruit the necessary talent to support their hiring efforts.
We know that Gen Z candidates have a high level of proficiency with new technologies and anticipate certain advancements (think: smartphone job application capabilities, intuitive job boards, etc.) as they go through the job-seeking process. This expectation presents a current challenge for the public sector, which has a known track record of using outdated technology and slowness in adopting new technologies. To engage and attract new talent, leaders must create environments that promote efficiency, transparency, and intuitive user experience.
“It is critically important that agencies invest in building talent pipelines for the future - that means strategically evaluating talent needs, recruiting more effectively and efficiently, selecting the most qualified candidates and bringing them on board, and capitalizing on internships as a primary way to build talent pipelines.” - Margot Conrad, Director for Government Affairs, Partnership for Public Service
Be proactive, not reactive
Government agencies typically follow standardized hiring processes that consist of distinct stages. Unlike the private sector, which may skip or reorganize certain steps to accelerate the hiring process or hire at scale, the public sector moves very systematically through a set of prescribed steps for each position it fills.
Additionally, the public sector relies on a reactive approach to hiring by filling vacant positions as they become available. USAJobs, the federal government’s official employment site, is a job board, not a comprehensive recruiting system. In the absence of cutting-edge recruiting technologies that promote engagement, communication, and connection to an agency’s mission and work, top talent can be kept in the dark about career possibilities in the public sector.
This approach fails to assess an actual need for talent, resulting in unfilled positions, overburdened workers, and massive skills shortages. Without a strategic hiring plan that involves workforce planning and identifying long-term talent needs, the public sector will continue struggling with open positions that remain unfilled.
Continue offering work-life flexibility
During the pandemic, Gen Z observed how industries and organizations responded, particularly in terms of flexibility, safety, and employee-centric policies. Most government employees were deemed “essential,” requiring in-person work throughout the pandemic. In contrast, private sector companies quickly shifted to remote work and flexibility.
The public sector workplace environment values public accountability and high security, which can conflict with the desire for flexibility and balance amongst younger workers. According to a recent study, 90% of Gen Z employees now prefer a hybrid model, dividing their time between the office and home, rather than returning to full-time in-office work.
Ironically, Gen Z isn’t the only generation desiring more balance within the public sector. While Gen Z values flexibility as a way to achieve better work-life balance and pursue personal interests, Gen Xers (born between 1965-1980) also prefer greater flexibility to help balance work and family responsibilities.
This highlights the importance of understanding the unique needs and motivations of different generational cohorts when designing flexibility workplace policies in the public sector. Since 2021, the White House has also acknowledged this need after issuing a memo to encourage agencies in offering flexible work arrangements and expanding telework opportunities. The effort aligns with broader trends in the private sector, with many employers adopting flexible working arrangements as a way to attract and retain talent and improve employee well-being, engagement, and satisfaction.
In today’s climate, the public sector is consistently challenged by private companies that can provide better salaries and benefits and faster, more modern hiring experiences. In order to effectively compete, the government must address its reputation resulting from past practices and improve outdated recruitment and application procedures that still persist in many areas.
As Gen Z continues establishing themselves in the workforce and begins to occupy influential positions, they will be called to fill roles in the public sector, facilitating a sort of “public service renaissance.” Over the next several years, there is significant potential to attract and retain new talent in the public sector. Gen Z fits the bill: they are mission-driven, enthusiastic, and crave stability.
For more insights like these, talk to the team at Abode. Our all-in-one platform can provide the transparency, communication, expectations, and community your Gen Z talent is looking for.