Our nation’s government is in desperate need of younger talent. According to the latest data, less than 7% of the federal civilian workforce’s 1.9 million full-time employees are under the age of 30. By comparison, nearly 20% of the employed U.S. labor force was under 30 in 2020.
The federal government needs young people not only to foster innovation and to bring in emerging skills and new ways of thinking, but to make the federal workforce more representative of the nation it serves. To its credit, the Biden administration included references in its fiscal 2022 budget proposal to expanding federal intern programs, as well as the need to “recruit and retain a diverse and inclusive federal workforce.”
To attract and retain the next generation of public servants, agencies will need to address specific and persistent issues in the federal employee experience that dissuade and disengage young people. We spoke with leaders from across government who have found success in engaging younger employees to better understand the challenges they face and how they are overcoming them.
Recruiting and Onboarding
For many federal leaders, one of the biggest challenges is finding young people who are familiar with the complex missions of their organizations. “Engagement starts during the recruiting process” was a common refrain. Several leaders attributed the difficulties to limited brand recognition.
At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, younger job candidates are often unaware of the full scope of the agency’s work, according to Sean Clayton, director of NOAA’s Office of Human Capital.
“Name recognition hinders us. The public is cognizant of the National Weather Service. But we need to do more messaging so that the public knows that all these organizations [such as the National Weather Service, National Ocean Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service] that they are used to seeing actually fall underneath the NOAA umbrella,” Clayton said.
Katharine Kelley, chief human capital officer of the Department of the Army’s Futures Command, shared a similar sentiment. “The civilian population in our country primarily thinks of an infantry soldier when they think of the Army. They do not think of a scientist.”
However, getting talent in the door is only part of the issue. We know from the Best Places to Work data that making the connection between the skills that an employee brings to the job and the mission of the organization is an important component of engagement. This is especially true for younger talent, and the linkage should be clear on day one. Many of those interviewed said that consistent and effective onboarding is critical to ensuring that new staff members have a common understanding of organizational mission and how they fit into it.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
In a 2018 poll, Gallup found one of the top characteristics that young millennials and Gen Z look for is leaders who support a diverse and inclusive workplace.
The federal government, however, has long struggled to build a diverse workforce, foster inclusion and implement equitable policies and practices. While nearly half of entry-level federal employees identified as people of color, according to the latest data, they made up less than 25% of the career Senior Executive Service – an indication that government has unaddressed issues of racial inequity in its hiring and promotion processes. Moreover, the latest Best Places to Work data available show that less than 60% of federal employees reported being satisfied with their agency’s support for diversity and inclusion.
While this poses a challenge to engagement across the federal workforce, agency leaders noted that it can have a particular impact on younger employees who often expect to enter organizations that are further along in their diversity, equity and inclusion journeys. Eleanour Snow of the U.S. Geological Survey put it this way: “Young people are really interested in diversity, equity and inclusion, and when they look around at an organization of mostly older white men, they wonder where their place is.”
Helping younger employees understand how they can grow within an organization can also be a challenge. Without insight into the advancement opportunities available to them, younger individuals can quickly become disengaged.
But federal leaders interviewed said that it is not necessarily being promoted quickly that matters most. What most younger employees seem to care about is knowing what opportunities for development are available and understanding how they can grow within their organization. They want to be able to see the path ahead.
“There is a voracious appetite on the part of young and mid-career employees to not only see opportunities for themselves in the future, but to connect with people who they trust to help them navigate that process,” said Kelley of the Army Futures Command.
And when this appetite is not met, many noted, younger employees can become dissatisfied and seek opportunities outside of the agency or government altogether.
STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
One way agencies have found early-career employees who are attracted to their missions is through targeted and intentional recruitment. Rather than passively hoping prospective employees will come to them, the most successful agencies proactively pursue prospective employees needed to achieve their missions.
At the Army Futures Command, this involves establishing relationships with higher education institutions, their faculty and students. “When we connect with that university, we are not only getting the professor-level expertise to help us in our work, but there is the student population that is also learning from those same professors who are feeders into our labs,” Kelley said.
NOAA has been taking a different approach, focusing on external professional networks and affinity groups, particularly those that serve underrepresented communities.
“We target the Black Engineers of the Year conference and other professional organizations. Affinity groups and professional organizations help attract diverse talent to NOAA,” said Kenneth Bailey, NOAA’s director of inclusion and civil rights.
In addition, the agency uses a robust array of internship programs as a pipeline for young talent. “We bring a few hundreds of students on every year. They come in with incredible motivation and passion. And by the end of the program, most of them are interested in coming back to work for NOAA,” said Louisa Koch, the agency’s director of education.
Lara Grillos from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said the bureau takes a similar approach. “We have a direct hire program available for recent graduates. They complete a rigorous, 11-week project and then we can hire them on directly without going through the competitive process. It is another great way that we can recruit.”
Onboarding a new employee should be more than just filling out paperwork and completing routine tasks. An effective onboarding process involves acclimating a new hire to the culture of their workplace, giving them a sense of where they fit into the organization, and setting them up to make positive contributions to their teams in the shortest amount of time.
And onboarding does not have to be a centralized, top-down process to be effective. Especially in large agencies with disparate workforces, onboarding programs can still be unique to an office or region and consistently educate new employees on their roles and give them a sense of attachment to the organization’s mission and goals. According to several federal leaders, the key is giving new staff opportunities for hands-on learning throughout their onboarding process.
At the Bureau of Reclamation, they have coined a term for this – “Technical Tuesdays.” Once a month, experts from across the bureau showcase their work and give staff, especially those that are new, an opportunity to learn about the different ways that the agency delivers on its mission.
“We get to see this cutting-edge technology that Reclamation is a part of. It is fascinating and so accessible to all employees. It is a great program,” said James Kirkland, formerly of USBR’s Civil Rights Division.
And within one of the bureau’s offices, they go a step further and get employees to see the work firsthand. Located in Denver, Colorado, USBR’s Technical Service Center provides technical assistance and innovative solutions for water and power resource issues.
“They have a world-class laboratory that includes scaled hydraulic models of dams to make sure they can pass floods safely, and a 5-million pound test machine to see how much pressure concrete can take, typically in very loud and dramatic fashion. It is a really neat place. And we offer tours to all new employees as part of onboarding in our Denver office,” Grillos said.
For the U.S. Geological Survey, another component of their success is continuously evaluating their onboarding program. “Within three months, new hires are invited to complete a survey to share their experiences from the recruitment process, through their first several weeks on the job,” said Ashley Cannady from the agency’s Office of Organizational Development. Cannady emphasized that evolution has to follow. “It is important that organizational leaders utilize the data to identify strengths and areas for improvement, then implement any necessary changes,” she added.
Mentorship and Empowerment
Another way to engage younger employees is to give them opportunities to learn from their colleagues and explore the different career paths available to them, even if the journey will not be as fast as they might prefer. “There is a very significant need for people to see who they could be in the future,” said Kelley from Army Futures Command.
Peggy Gardiner, organizational development chief at U.S. Geological Survey, said that in the agency’s experience, mentorship for young people is critical. “When we reach them and connect them with a mentor, it is often a lifeline for them to stay engaged.”
According to Kelley, the Army Futures Command takes this idea a step further and has embedded a two-sided approach to coaching and mentorship. As part of the agency’s leadership development program, younger employees are given the opportunity to learn from mid-career and senior colleagues, and senior leaders are trained to find and elevate promising talent. “I am trying to grow good federal leaders. They need to know how to reach down and find that talent and pull it up.”
Enabling and encouraging younger staff to make an impact at their level is another way that the agency leaders have addressed the advancement challenge. In particular, many of the leaders mentioned employee resource groups and how they can serve as a source of empowerment and inclusion for younger employees.
At NOAA, employee resource groups help promote visibility and access for younger employees and those who identify as members of underrepresented communities. “They have been very instrumental in helping employees connect with their allies. They contribute so much to employee engagement. And they help break down some of the barriers that exist for newer and younger employees,” Bailey said.
At USGS, there is even a resource group dedicated specifically to supporting and empowering young scientists. The group was developed to create “a place where younger employees can network with peers, identify the unique needs of early career scientists, and strategize how to address those needs,” said Kristen Donahue, former president of the Early Career Scientist Network.
The agency has several other resource groups, including ones for minority employees, women and staff with disabilities. All are championed by a sponsor from the Executive Leaders Team, which is a critical feature, according to Donahue. “We have a direct line of communication between USGS leadership and our group. Having a connection with senior leadership is an invaluable resource that allows us to make sure the voices of early career scientists are heard,” Donahue said.
For Laurie Hall, the president of the early career scientist employee resource group, it is this culture of empowering employees at all levels that helps USGS succeed. “Individuals who are motivated to make changes to the organization are really supported in those endeavors. That is separate from the USGS mission, but it is a critical part of us achieving our mission.”
AGENCY SPOTLIGHT: MENTORING AND EMPOWERMENT AT THE BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is responsible for measuring labor market activity, working conditions, price changes and productivity in the U.S. economy. While its work might not be as well-known as that of NASA, the FBI or the IRS, particularly among young people, the Department of Labor subcomponent has proven that with intentional onboarding, mentorship and empowerment, it can create an environment that not only appeals to the next generation of talent but also engages and retains them.
For Bill Wiatrowski, the BLS deputy commissioner, part of the bureau’s approach to engaging young talent starts with an effective onboarding process. Rather than weighing down new employees with paperwork and long training periods, they give them opportunities to “learn by doing” and contribute to meaningful work early on such as playing a role in producing the agency’s monthly Employment Situation report or the Consumer Price Index.
“Part of [our success] is getting staff involved quickly in work that has a clear output and a meaning. We do not have people sitting around for a long time,” Wiatrowski said. “They are up and running and working and they can see the fruits of their labor pretty quickly.”
Another key to the bureau’s success is professional development grounded in workforce and organizational needs.
“We push managers to ask, ‘What is the training that you need to keep moving forward, what are the skills that the program needs today and what are the skills that the program will need tomorrow,’” Wiatrowski said.
With this information, the bureau often creates opportunities to meet those needs, like the new data science training program that is currently being piloted. The program is intended to address skill shortages across the organization and consists of a combination of self-training through online courses, some group sessions and a project that is directly related to the work of each employee’s office or program.
In a similar vein, Wiatrowski created a writing course for employees to help the bureau’s technical employees learn how to write for a general audience and produce accessible analyses.
BLS also engages and empowers younger employees by encouraging them to take on new work that interests them. As an example, the bureau has an innovation detail program that allows for employees to transfer to another office or team for three to four months. Through this program, which has run for the past five years, employees have a chance work on a particular problem or product of interest that will also have an impact.
“They are things that otherwise might have dragged on for a long time because people did not get to focus their time and attention on them,” Wiatrowski said.
This focused time empowers employees to make significant change at their level and stay engaged. And while the program is open to staff at various levels, it is particularly popular with younger employees who have the chance to do something different while benefiting the organization.
BLS also tackles the advancement and inclusion challenges that dampen engagement for younger employees by regularly convening senior leaders to talk about their careers and paths for advancement within the agency. This “Senior Staff Roundtable” is moderated by a junior staff member and serves to inspire younger employees and give them an opportunity to have meaningful conversations about their career trajectory.
“Employees get an opportunity to hear about different career paths and how those paths can help them figure out where they are going,” Wiatrowski said.
In the end, it is not one particular action or strategy that has helped BLS succeed in keeping its younger employees engaged, but a range of different approaches and an emphasis on being responsive to their needs. And it seems to be paying off.
With a full-time workforce made up of nearly twice the percentage of employees under 30 as the rest of government and employee engagement scores consistently in the top quartile of agency subcomponents, the bureau has shown that even an agency whose name you may not recognize can be a model for the rest of government.