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State and federal government employees are expected to retire in droves over the next few years. According to the Office of Personnel Management, 45 percent of current federal employees are age 50 and older. This comes as Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) are poised to represent half of the workforce by 2020. To prepare for the new face of the government talent pool, the public sector needs to competitively recruit and retain talent to operate the government in the 21st century.

That may be easier said than done, though. Agency leaders are facing a perfect storm of retiring personnel, fierce competition for skilled talent and difficulty getting recruits interested in public service. What’s behind some of the government talent retention and recruiting challenges? And how can government leaders win the talent war, successfully recruiting and retaining the talent they need?


Employees have a choice about where to work. Low unemployment rates mean that talented job seekers receive multiple job offers or recruitment calls from competitive employers who can dangle enticing benefits to lure employees to new positions. For government organizations, low unemployment makes some of their other challenges even more acute.

  • Inexperience in Hiring and Retaining Younger Workers. Until now, government has not had to attract a high percentage of young people to public service. Government has less experience with the best methods to attract and retain Millennials and Generation Z (born 1995 through 2014), who are more digitally connected, culturally diverse and mission-focused than older generations. Effective hiring and retention of younger workers is different from previous generations.waiting for job interview
  • Poor Perception of Government Work. Media have been reporting for years that young people are not drawn to public sector jobs, which is supported by a recent report from Accenture. Accenture found that nearly half of those who are employed in the public sector say it is an attractive place to work. However, among those with no government work experience, only 20 percent said they would find public sector work attractive.
  • Limited Pool of Skilled Talent. There is a widespread “war for talent,” particularly for specialized, highly skilled jobs such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and certain skilled trades. As the search for skills goes international, government entities are at a disadvantage. Federal positions that have access to sensitive information often require a security clearance, a privilege generally granted only to U.S. citizens.


To fill open positions, government must identify and entice qualified applicants. While some of the government hiring obstacles require longer-term change, there is a lot that agencies can do to build a competitive workforce. Here are 3 tactics that can make a difference right away.

  1. Market Your Higher Purpose – and Other Agency Strengths. Rather that simply posting job descriptions and required qualifications, think about all that your agency has to offer. Your marketing efforts should emphasize the benefits of working for government. Younger workers care about agency mission. While compensation is important, the deciding factor for many Millennials is the opportunity to take on meaningful work and make a difference. In addition, if you have flexible work hours, career development opportunities or a learning culture, emphasize those desirable traits at every marketing touchpoint.
  2. Hire Non-Traditional Workers. Government has done a good job of bringing back retirees to work on projects and mentor young talent. Think, too, about hiring personnel who are reentering the workforce – even part-time – after raising a family, returning from a military tour of duty, getting back on track from a drug or alcohol recovery or even serving time in prison. Many of these workers have relevant skills, flexible schedules and a desire to be productive in a work setting.
  3. Tap Short-Term Talent. The General Services Administration’s (GSA) groundbreaking digital services agency, 18F, was started in response to the troubled rollout of the health insurance marketplace. To solve performance and accessibility issues, the GSA hired skilled personnel from big technology firms on a short-term basis. Employees stepped out of their everyday jobs into the government for (typically) one to four years. While most returned to their commercial employers, some have been hired by the government as full-time employees. Done right, in an intentional government-industry partnership, similar programs could be a government-industry-employee win-win-win, bringing skilled employees who might otherwise not consider public sector service to government jobs.


Government leaders know their organizations will go through rapid change in the years ahead. To thrive through the shift, they want the right talent on board and leading the transformation. Here are three essentials for your government talent retention program.

  1. Learning Culture. For workers in any industry, it’s clear that the work world will be different in three, five and ten years (or more). Employees want to keep up – to be useful to their employer, to be satisfied in their jobs and to be marketable should their work circumstances changes. If you haven’t already, build a learning culture. You’ll have an edge when it comes to retention.
  2. Coaching and Modern Performance Management. Younger workers want frequent, meaningful feedback on their performance. It doesn’t take long to do the right thing when it comes to performance. And, in this case, doing the right thing can make the difference in engaging – and retaining – your personnel.
  3. Opportunities for Advancement. The Accenture report above found that six of the ten most important retention factors have nothing to do with compensation – they focus on the nature of the experience. Sixty-two percent cited “opportunities for advancement” as the most important reason to stay with an employer. Couple this desire with the government’s need to have a robust succession plan, and it becomes clear that career paths and succession plans benefit your employees and organization alike.

Public service leaders recognize that attracting and retaining talent is one the greatest challenges to successfully deliver future public services. Archaic systems and processes are slowly getting replaced. While job security, strong benefits and retirement are still government strengths, there is movement afoot to change the way government runs its workforce. Many of those changes, such as rewarding employees for performance rather than tenure, will benefit agencies in the long run; it’s not enough to address the near-term need to hire and retain top talent now.

The good news is, government has a lot to offer potential workers today. By adjusting current practices and taking steps for longer-term improvements, government can be well positioned to recruit and retain the talent it needs.

Looking for best practices to recruit and retain your future workforce? Contact us. Or download our white paper, Optimizing Your Workforce, for ideas to engage and retain your personnel.