Age and experience aren't everything. Young professionals today are driven to make an impact, and bring diversity, creativity, and new skills to the public workplace.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in about seven years (by the year 2020), Millennials will make up approximately 40 percent of the U.S. workforce. Now is the time to nurture this burgeoning force and to harness all its enthusiasm, knowledge, and promise.
Is your office ready? Federal agencies have made strides in recruiting young talent, but there is an attitudinal element to this transition that will make or break our ability to retain Millennials in public service. Younger workers, no matter what their level of education and achievement, are often viewed as rookies because of their relatively short tenure on the job. Their opinions may not be given the same consideration as those of more seasoned workers, and this can lead to frustration and dissatisfaction among eager young professionals.
A Welcoming Climate
A more welcoming climate must be encouraged, because we all have so much to share and to learn from each other. Not content to wait for this more youth-friendly culture to evolve, Millennials are taking matters into their own hands and supporting each other in many innovative ways.
One way that ambitious young public servants connect and reenergize is by attending the annual Next Generation of Government Summit (NextGen). Now in its fourth year, NextGen is OPM-approved training that offers workshops and networking opportunities for Generation X and Y government employees. Sponsored by Young Government Leaders (YGL) and GovLoop, NextGen attracts people who are interested in growing personally and professionally. At the most recent summit in July, I witnessed hundreds of young people gathered in one place to strengthen their commitment to serve, to problem-solve around key issues facing government today, and to learn new skills that will make them more competent and capable leaders.
What might escape notice, though, is that merely by attending NextGen, they are already leading. Even if they have not yet been made a supervisor, or have not yet paid their dues on the GS ladder, they have already begun to lead by demonstrating a love for government and a dedication to making it better. That is what this generation is all about. The success of NextGen illustrates that we already have a great crop of dedicated young employees in federal service, and points to the need for more training and development opportunities that are specifically tailored to their needs.
Keep the Creative Juices Flowing
Why is it so important for government to embrace this new generation of workers? First of all, our generation is open to possibilities and to innovative ideas. This means that adding a young employee to your project team or committee not only will add diversity, but also will help to keep those creative juices flowing. You've heard the classic idea-killer, "We've already tried that and it didn't work." Or how about the doubt-lover's favorite, "That's not possible."
In praising the emergence of this new crop of government leaders, Jenn Pahlka, U.S. deputy chief technology officer and NextGen keynote speaker, explained that many things were once deemed impossible but have defied the odds and become a part of everyday life. For example, people doubted that Wikipedia could ever succeed in crowdsourcing knowledge, but it has succeeded. And many people were skeptical of the government's open data movement, worried that allowing public access to government data would create too much risk. But the open government movement has not only made the government more accountable and transparent, but also enabled the public to use our information to pursue innovative ideas.
This generation is not afraid to explore new ideas, even ones that to some might seem impossible. And they are technologically savvy enough to find solutions to existing problems that might before have seemed insurmountable. Currently we are under sequestration, and it's easy to make excuses about not being able to get things done in government. But as entrepreneur Jeff Freeland Nelson pointed out at the conference, scarcity breeds creativity. When you have less, you are forced to be more creative with what you do have. During this challenging time of belt-tightening and budget cuts, it is absolutely essential to have creative people on your team.
Secondly, the new generation of government professionals has an unrelentingly collaborative mindset. They have grown up sharing their thoughts, pictures, and major life events on Facebook and other social media sites. From this background, social innovation was born. According to Wikipedia, social innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas, and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds that extend and strengthen civil society. Millennials know that when people put their minds together (in-person or online), they can come up with new ideas to make positive change in the world. And isn't that government's mission in a nutshell?
Additionally, social media has enabled Millennials to feel capable in organizing peers and even strangers at the grassroots level. Social media enthusiasts have called this "community gardening" or building relationships to both benefit from and contribute to a group of people. Inherently, young feds don't like silos that divide people and organizations. They yearn to reach across organizational lines and hierarchies to make change happen quickly.
Some executives are searching for ways to break down barriers through the use of SharePoint and similar tools. This is a great opportunity to involve the next generation of leaders who have a keen understanding of these tools and, more importantly, the inclusive and collaborative philosophy behind them.
Expanding Open Government
Finally, we need to start embracing this new generation of leaders because our elected officials are already doing it! President Obama's second term management agenda is all about 21st century government. This includes expanding initiatives to open government to the public and to make information more accessible, thereby enabling the public to use government data for innovation. (See data.gov or its second-term pilot, next.data.gov.)
One of the most inspirational moments of the NextGen Summit was a keynote speech by Svante Myrick, who made history as the youngest mayor of Ithaca, New York (age 24 when elected, now 26). Myrick's message was that our generation should not wait to run for office or contribute to government. He explained that Millennials bring unmatched energy, creativity, and moral authority to the government arena. And that's what he brings to his job as mayor every day. It was truly inspirational to see a young person who is so sure of himself and so ready to lead his community. (His constituents must have been ready for this new brand of leadership, too!)
Now that we know what a valuable addition Millennials can be to our team, how can government agencies attract and retain students and young employees? How do we retain them and prepare them to be successful managers and leaders?
Recruitment and Retention
On the recruitment side, YGL's research shows that job fairs at colleges and universities are the best way to reach out to prospective employees. Not only do job fairs provide an in-person connection between the recruit and the recruiter, they also demystify government jobs to young people who may not understand how to apply for these jobs or what it is like to work for the government.
Utilizing the Pathways Programs or creating other fellowship opportunities are other effective ways to recruit students and young people into public service. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has used a student ambassador approach, where current NIH interns serve as recruiters to their current schools or alma maters. They encourage their peers to apply for Pathways positions in either the Internship Program (for current students), the Recent Graduates Program (for those who are up to two years out of college or graduate school), or the Presidential Management Fellows Program (a prestigious program for those up to two years out of graduate school).
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has created a program it dubbed the Design and Technology Fellows, which targets a specific skillset and boasts an eye-catching and easy-to-read website to attract young talent.
Recruitment, though, is only the first step. Arguably, the harder and more long-term challenge is retention. Surveys of YGL members have shown that the biggest barrier to retention of young government employees is the quality of work assignments they are given. This means that managers will be most successful in engaging and retaining their employees if they express interest in their goals and what type of work motivates them.
In addition, providing professional development opportunities will make young employees feel that the agency has invested in them, while also educating junior employees in both hard and soft skills that will make them more effective leaders. Mentoring and job shadowing are also great ways that agencies can provide networking and on-the-job training for employees to increase their organizational awareness and sense of loyalty to the agency. And some agencies are doing a great job in onboarding and engaging new employees, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development's "HUD Under 5" organization that helps connect and organize employees who have been employed with HUD less than five years.
With the Millennial generation becoming more prominent in the workforce, perhaps this is a good time to rethink our definition of the term "retention." Gone are the days of employees spending their careers at just one agency. Young professionals today are driven to make an impact, but do not feel that they need to stick exclusively with one organization to make that impact. Many employees will change jobs every two to three years.
It's time that we embrace retention in public service at-large, not necessarily just within our own office or even within our own agency. Diverse experience helps a leader become well-rounded and likely more effective.
We need to encourage our emerging leaders to seek out jobs and experiences throughout public service. They don't need to stay at our agency to be considered a success. Recruitment efforts by all agencies bolster the public service at-large, and our retention efforts ensure that every department has a wealth of talent and effective leadership.
We are certainly facing some unique challenges in government these days, and there are some pessimists who make dire predictions about the future or who make negative assumptions about the new generation joining public service. But age and experience aren't everything.
We have an opportunity to complement our experienced government leaders with an infusion of enthusiasm and new ideas. Because there is no pre-requisite experience to make a positive difference in government, I'm excited to say that the next generation of government is now.