March 2013
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TD Magazine

Generation Y Yearns for Challenging and Satisfying Government Work

Friday, March 8, 2013
Generation Y Yearns for Challenging and Satisfying Government Work

A proper onboarding process geared toward Gen Y's needs can give federal agencies the upper hand.

When Baby Boomers began entering the federal workforce more than 40 years ago, they were welcomed into a workplace that embraced the idea of apprenticeship and knowledge transfer. Fresh off of the counterculture revolution, Boomers were eager to make a difference in running their country and they were racing to answer President John F. Kennedy's call to government service.

"Government service must be attractive enough to lure our most talented people. It must be challenging enough to call forth our greatest efforts," said Kennedy in his message to the Federal Service, as published in the January-March 1961 issue of the Civil Service Journal. "It must be interesting enough to retain their services. It must be satisfying enough to inspire single-minded loyalty and dedication. It must be important enough to each individual to call forth reserves of energy and enthusiasm."

For many Generation Y employees today, the Kennedy vision of a government job that is attractive, challenging, interesting, satisfying, inspiring, and important isn't being realized—and the question that perplexes most leaders is why.

Onboarding today

A large part of that answer can be found in how federal agencies onboard new employees. By and large, most agencies look at onboarding as way to acclimate an employee to their corporate culture and to provide employees with the basic tools they will need to complete their jobs.

Employees spend anywhere from a few days to a few weeks figuring out how their agencies work and what they have to do to get things done. There's also an almost universal desire from senior leaders to find ways to shorten the onboarding experience so new employees can hit the ground running and start making important contributions right away. To accommodate that desire, many agencies have now begun adopting a virtual onboarding experience to replace the classroom model.

For the fast-paced Generation Y employee, onboarding programs that use technology and can bring people up to speed quickly sound great. The challenge is that some of those programs are too focused on tactical objectives and fail to address some of the "big picture" issues regarding the world of work.

Onboarding fails when it's viewed as an event instead of a process and when agencies fail to see that many of their new Gen Y employees need to be onboarded to not only their jobs, but the world of work. This can be a sort of "ouch" moment for both agency leaders and Gen Y employees. Both believe that they are ready for each other, but based on the amount of conflict taking place in the workplace, many agencies need to rethink their onboarding programs.

What Gen Y needs

So what should agencies do to improve the Gen Y onboarding experience?

First, assume Gen Y is new to the world of work. Before you ask Gen Yers to execute technical work assignments, make sure that you have taught them the basics about being productive and effective workers.

Don't assume that they know how to hit the ground running on day one. For many of them, they are great at following scripts and they will be looking for you to provide a daily script of what they are expected to do and the timeframe they have to complete assignments.

Though senior leaders can and should provide direction on the completion of work, it will serve an agency well to break the illusion that every job and every position has a script associated with it. Good onboarding programs get Gen Y and others to embrace the role and importance of the individual contributor.

What can make things even more sticky is that hiring managers often assume that a Gen Y professional already possesses an in-depth knowledge of "work." They assume that the employee already knows how to work on intergenerational teams (which looks very different from working with a cohort of just Gen Y employees), and has clarity of workplace norms.

The truth is that many Gen Y employees, including those who have completed internships, enter the workplace ill-equipped to handle an agency's corporate culture. In addition, the college experience doesn't require students to complete any workplace 101 seminars, which contributes to Gen Y's lack of workplace experiences that deal with changing work requirements, deadlines, and stresses.

As an agency builds an effective onboarding program, here are some important questions to ponder:

  • What does it mean to work as part of a multigenerational team, what do team members expect from you, and what should you expect from them?
  • How should you communicate with leaders, co-workers, other agencies, and the public at large?
  • What do finished assignments look like in this agency?

Government agencies are moving forward with developing and deploying more robust onboarding programs that speak to more than just the technical requirement of a job.
As part of its onboarding initiative in 2010, the National Nuclear Security Administration Futures Leaders Program incorporated a half-day focused learning event that addressed intergenerational issues through workshops, discussion, and role plays. Gen Y employees were given the opportunity to see and experience, first-hand, how decision science in government can be complex. Over the course of the day, they began to gain a greater appreciation for the importance role experience can play in meeting mission requirements.

Another way to improve the Gen Y onboarding experience is to validate workplace expectations during the onboarding process. When it comes to onboarding, silence is not golden and tactical information alone won't complete the onboarding experience.

Generation Y employees need high levels of engagement from day one, and that engagement should include, in part, time to review, discuss, and validate workplace expectations such as:

  • how to handle conflict
  • how to embrace and learn from constructive criticism
  • what it means to be an effective mentee
  • how to offer creative ideas for your work group, your division, or the agency.

Improving onboarding

Build an onboarding program that takes place over a year, and involve leaders, staff, and experts in the program. Getting employees up to speed requires the involvement of leaders at all levels, peers, and oftentimes individuals from the outside.


Gen Y employees need time to digest, understand, and apply the knowledge they have learned. Cramming a lot of information into a few days or a few weeks sounds efficient, but it's not practical for Gen Y employees. For them to really be effective on the job, they need time to understand how best to use their new-found knowledge of not just the tactical aspects of their job, but the world of work as well.

Both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and NASA know that to keep an onboarding program relevant and sustainable it requires a constant communication exchange between hiring managers, human capital officials, and new employees. The agencies use survey instruments to help them identify and validate the onboarding needs of employees and make adjustments to their onboarding programs based on their survey results.

Fred Soto, a guru in performance leadership, believes that the onboarding experience should begin the day an offer is accepted. In Getting On Board: A Model for Integrating and Engaging New Employees, the Partnership for Public Service identifies a checklist of activities an agency can deploy throughout the course of year to ensure that its employees remain fully engaged and they get the just-in-time knowledge needed to be effective.

This same study also concludes that successful onboarding of employees during their first year of service increases engagement and raises retention by as much as 25 percent, improves performance, and hastens the time to full productivity.

It's also important that an agency identify clear metrics of success that determine whether an onboarding program is successful or is failing to meet the mark. Some of those metrics should be tactical in nature. For example: Did everyone complete the program? Did they do it on time? Did they effectively use technology?

Just as important, agencies should look to identify strategic metrics. For example: Is the onboarding program improving retention? Is it helping individuals better understand the mission? Is it helping individuals to value the importance of leadership, working across organizational lines, and building generational competencies? Is the program helping people fit into the corporate culture, and do they better understand their performance requirements?

Ultimately agencies should strive for one universal goal—to have an onboarding program that prepares staff to meet mission requirements by establishing an encouraging environment that is focused on unlocking potential.

Measure the Value of Onboarding

If you take the viewpoint that onboarding is more of a process than an event, any measurement system should focus on the engagement level of every new employee. Consider developing and deploying targeted quarterly survey’s for your new hires. Gather the data through traditional means or think about using online discussion groups.

In the first survey, seek data and feedback on whether your initial program was relevant in helping new employees understand the organization, their jobs, and the relationship between the two. In your second survey, ask new employees to identify how the information learned during the onboarding program is helping them be more effective and efficient on daily basis. In your third survey give yourself a chance to have a couple of Dr. Phil moments and ask folks how it’s going for them in the areas of leadership, collaboration, and team building.

Expect to get both positive and negative feedback from the data. Your program’s effectiveness always will be a work in progress. The long-term sustainability of your program will depend on your capacity to be flexible, adaptable, and open to the ideas of others. Seek new hires to be part of your communication and deployment strategies, and use social media to tell your onboarding story.

A rich and effective onboarding program needs to be measured and agile to meet the constantly changing needs of a workforce in motion. Embrace measurement, and watch your program grow. 

About the Author

Jeffrey Vargas is the chief learning officer and the director of the Office of Talent and Leadership Development for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). He is responsible for ensuring that CFTC employees have the regulatory knowledge, management, and leadership skills to oversee the swaps, options, and futures in the financial marketplace that have a notional value of over 700 trillion dollars. Jeff is a researcher, author, and sought after speaker on the subject of intergenerational trust, understanding generational differences, and building generational synergy. He is a passionate generational evangelist, who works to help organizations identify ways to improve their communication and cross-generational engagements.

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