If the federal government were a brand in the private sector, it would be a “dying, bad brand,” said Steve Ressler, the founder of GovLoop, a social network site for federal employees. Ressler is also a former federal employee.
Agencies have compelling social messages but, so far, most have done a poor job of delivering those messages, Ressler said. The message has to be “clean and crisp,” he said. Above all, “it’s not just a job; it’s a call of service.”
According to a 2010 Partnership for Public Service study on attrition, the people leaving government in the highest numbers are the ones the government is trying to keep on – the new hires. Nearly a quarter of federal employees with two years or less on the job end up leaving, according to the study. 69 percent of employees who resigned had less than five years of federal service. Overall government attrition rates are much lower. Attrition in government was less than 6 percent in fiscal year 2009, according to a January 2011 PPS report.
In other words, the challenge that government faces isn’t just in recruiting younger people; it’s also in retaining them.
Fortunately for the government, a 2009 Partnership for Public Service survey of 32,000 undergraduate students shows young people are attracted to public service. The government/public service industry was the top choice out of 46 options students said they wanted to work in after graduating. (17 percent of students surveyed chose government/public service, followed by health care at 13 percent, education at 12 percent, and marketing/advertising at 11 percent.)
But the same survey also found that young people associated government jobs with “bureaucracy” and “red tape.”
Aside from some well-known agencies — the State Department, NASA, CIA — many young people don’t have any idea of what federal workers do, said David Uejio, a special assistant for the National Institutes of Health’s human resources department and the vice president of Young Government Leaders, a professional development organization.
“It’s hard for them to envision themselves in a career when they don’t know what the actual job or profession is,” Uejio said.
The PPS research also shows young people care about an organization’s image almost as much as the job characteristics and the people and culture of the workplace. That means if the government has a branding problem, it also has a hiring problem.
If and when the retirement wave comes, the government will have to figure out a way to replace the Baby Boomers leaving federal jobs. In 2009, 28 percent of the federal workforce was eligible to retire but less than 9 percent did, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management compiled by PPS.
By 2015, nearly half – or more than 790,000 – will be of retiring age. How many of them will actually retire is still up for debate. Retention strategies could be more important and more urgent in the face of the recently enacted two-year pay freeze and the possibility of a hiring freeze, furloughs and changes to federal benefits.
This series highlights some of the current ways agencies are trying to bring on the next generation of federal workers and keep them there, as well as some new tools agencies could have in their hiring and retention arsenals in the future.