Last week, the Office of Personnel Management released a study boasting that Millennials are the happiest government employees of any generation. Of those surveyed, 86 percent claim their work is important, 83 percent claim their bosses treat them with respect, and 66 percent feel their bosses support their personal development. What’s shocking about this report is that in spite of being so happy, young people leave their government jobs after a short 3.8 years. This is slightly higher than the overall Millennial average (including the private sector) of about three years; in contrast, the national retention average regardless of age is 4.6 years.
The reality is that Millennials are attracted to government work because they want to feel like they’re giving back to the community, but quickly leave when they feel caught in a slog of forms and red tape upon taking up the position.
Government work seems like a perfect fit for the community-oriented Millennials. This young cohort (born after 1982) is volunteering and giving back to their community in “record numbers.” Almost all — 87 percent — donated to charity last year. Philanthropy Daily has gone as far to call Millennials “The Next Civic Generation.” Youths today are happy to donate their career to serving the public.
But the idea of serving the people and working for the federal government are two different beasts. While Millennials might feel comfort in the availability of a government career ladder, they are jarred when faced with the government’s categorical preference for rewarding workers who have been there longest over performance. Millennials, who are most comfortable with achievement-based awards like college admission, expect to work hard and be rewarded for their efforts. When bureaucracy gets in the way, they choose to leave.
In the same vein, it’s no secret that young people see themselves as special, and they want their jobs to be special too. From the outside, federal jobs can seem glamorous with options to travel the world as a diplomat, become a well-known economist that affects monetary policy, or save the environment.
Unfortunately, the public sector does not afford Millennials careers that validate their self-worth (at least when they’re just beginning their careers). Government jobs are quick to strip young adults of their individuality, from a long and formal hiring process to strict dress codes, making young workers feel more like a number than a person. In the personnel report, a only 34 percent of the Millennials surveyed agreed that they have opportunities to advance. In sum, these “special” Millennials don’t feel so special at government jobs.
Finally, Millennials love working on teams. From joining clubs as children (such as Boy Scouts or soccer) to being active on their college campuses, young people seek out and enjoy the company of their peers. They don’t just do it in person, either; one report found that a great majority (71 percent) of Millennials sign on to social media sites daily.
Unfortunately at many government jobs, Millennials will quickly feel disconnected. It’s a regular practice to discourage, or even prohibit, signing on to social sites. Neil Howe notes in Millennials in the Workplace, “Many government middle managers also resist attempts to implement networking technologies in the belief that, in hierarchical agencies, controlling access to information enhances their authority.” As digital natives, Millennials find this outlook condescending. It’s no wonder they don’t last more than half-a-decade in these positions.
There are clear steps that the public sector can take to retain their young employees, though many of these systems are institutionalized and thus difficult to overcome. Firstly, they can expedite the hiring process. Millennials want to feel like they’re wanted, and, to them, a six-month hiring period is unacceptable. The federal government can also start to emphasize performance-based awards (which Millennials value far more than “pay for performance” anyway). Finally, it’s time for government agencies to embrace the online world by allowing their employees free reign over the web and invest in government software to improve their agency’s efficiency.
The private sector should take these lessons to heart too. They can appeal to Millennials’ civic nature and instill a formal community service program. They can also make their young employees feel special with one-on-one recruitment, mentoring services, and reward their performance with public accolades and provide them with opportunities to advance.
If the federal government and private sector are serious about retaining their Millennial employees, it’s time for them to start digging into what young people want and changing their workplace environment to accommodate their needs.
Burger is a Young Voices Advocate living in Washington, DC.