Federal government agencies may be facing a retirement tsunami and need to find new strategies to attract and keep younger workers in the public sector
As 2022 draws to a close, the disruptive factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation, and current economic uncertainties weigh heavily on the minds of managers both in the public and the private sectors.
Yet, what can managers in the federal government expect for future workplace attrition, and what best practices can they adopt to better attract younger workers to the public sector?
The retirement “tsunami” is still to come
The federal government weathered the COVID-19 pandemic with less volatility than state or local government agencies in terms of employee attrition. Indeed, record job vacancies in the public sector were largely seen as the result of the outflow of workers in local government and public education, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the 18-month period between February 2020 and August 2022.
And one 2021 assessment from The Partnership for Public Service, found that attrition rates hovered around 6.1% within federal agencies, with slightly more than half of those leaving left due to retirement. This number was a slight increase from 2020 numbers of around 5%, but in line with pre-pandemic attrition rates.
Of course, these stable numbers may mean that the tsunami of anticipated federal retirements has yet to really hit.
More concerning figures relate to federal workforce age and incoming federal employees. A 2021 White House report, Strengthening the Federal Workforce, reveals that the percentage of federal employees over the age of 60 continues to increase year over year, while employees under the age of 30 continually decrease as a percentage of the federal workforce.
Younger employees simply aren’t joining the federal workforce at the needed pace to provide adequate succession planning for upcoming retirements. A 2022 Qualtrics survey on federal recruitment of more than 1,000 recent college graduates showed that more than half of those surveyed would not consider a career within the federal government.
Is workplace flexibility the key?
Understanding why a public sector career is unappealing to younger workers is a necessary first step to address the issue. Perceptions surrounding how and where federal work takes place appear to be the culprit.
In the Qualtrics survey, the top three reasons given by respondents on why they wouldn’t consider a career in government included: perceived under-qualification, lack of work/life balance, and experience gaps in their resumés. While many recommendations have been made about enhancing federal recruitment practices to successfully attract a diverse candidate pool, federal agencies would be well-served to highlight the flexibility of work that is already offered within the public sector.
Flexibility in how and where work occurs can be a key factor for attracting and retaining younger members of the workforce within the public sector. Fortunately for recruiting managers, the federal workforce already offers significant flexibility to current and prospective employees.
The federal workforce has adjusted in the current post-pandemic environment to offer remote working options that are either fully remote or in a hybrid fashion. In fact, the Office of Personnel Management’s 2021 Government Wide Management Report found that 57% of federal employee respondents worked remotely at least once a week, up from 23% just two years earlier.
Employee experience matters
Cultivating a culture where employees have the flexibility that they desire to achieve better work/life balance, and where they can feel connected and valued by their managers may seem like a daunting task to many government agency managers. However, managers can ensure that their culture puts people first by implementing several recommend best practices, such as:
Focus on building and maintaining connection with team members through short, regular check-ins — For remote or hybrid employees, managers can pre-schedule intentional meetings with a clear focus area.
Establish “buddy” or mentor programs to link up new and veteran employees within an organization — Programs that match new employees with peers (rather than supervisors) acknowledges the fact that employees may feel more comfortable asking some questions of a peer rather than their direct supervisor. Likewise, the mentor can provide the new employee with valuable insights about organizational culture. Mentorship programs also can be redesigned for remote or hybrid employees.
Offer diverse learning and professional development opportunities — The rise of hybrid and remote work has contributed to “Zoom fatigue” for many. Offering professional development opportunities that are a mix of webinars, in-person, or self-paced learning modules reinforces that employees are valued, while not contributing to the exhaustion that overuse of virtual video conferencing tools can generate.
Understand how your employees learn — Hand-in-hand with the point above, not all humans learn in the same fashion. Four dominant learning styles include aural, visual, kinesthetic, and reading/writing. Implementing learning style assessments into employee pre-boarding can help managers best understand how to most effectively train and on-board new hires.
Remember that team bonding is still important, remotely or in-person — As full-time in-person work continues to decline, some organizations have empowered employees to spend time together outside of work by volunteering, socializing, or even sharing a meal together. A lunch traditionally spent together in-person can be recreated by supplying remote employees with a gift card for food delivery or to a restaurant of their choosing. Managers also can prioritize scheduling a shared meal for hybrid employees when they are in-office.
Finally, it’s important to understand that the federal workforce has not experienced the rapid outflow of workers to the same extent that state and local government organizations have in the post-pandemic era. Yet, that doesn’t mean critical challenges around talent have been avoided for good.
In preparation for the upcoming retirement of aging members of the federal workforce, managers should consider adjusting their management style to be more people-centric and considerate of increasing remote and hybrid work preferences.