What Stands Between Young People and Local Government Jobs?

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COMMENTARY | Many millennials or members of Generation Z are interested in meaningful work that can help improve people’s lives, but they don’t necessarily see government jobs in that light.

As a recent 22-year-old graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Annabell Camacho knew she wanted to spend her life helping people in the kind of distress her family had suffered.

Growing up in the poor Latino community of East Los Angeles, Camacho experienced homelessness at an early age. As an adult thinking about her career and ways to create a better life for others, local government didn’t seem like a promising route. “I knew that immigration and housing were important in my life, but I didn’t really know what local government was or what it did,” she says.

Over the years we’ve had many conversations with government leaders who fear that young men and women who want to make positive changes for society don’t think of government as an option. “I thought working for a government meant having a nine-to-five desk job and then going home," says Camacho. “I thought there was a sense of complacency in people who worked in local government. I had passion and I thought that’s not the environment for me.”

One young professional had this to share: “I picture a government workplace as one that is dark and sterile and boring. I haven’t thought that I could make an impact because there are so many roadblocks.”

Around the U.S., many state and local governments are working to rebrand and rebuild the image of public sector work. With the national unemployment rate at under 4%, baby boomers exiting the public sector workplace at a rapid clip and a growing number of job vacancies, the challenge is to bring motivated new workers into government, while also creating a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities that are served. Nicki Fraser, a visiting professor of public administration at Florida International University, cites a series of questions often discussed by her colleagues. “How can government be sexier? How do you market it and make it attractive? How do you make students think of this as a future career?”

Ben Kittelson, an older millennial himself and an associate with the Novak Consulting Group, recently spoke at a workforce summit designed to prepare for the next generation of state and local government employees. Before taking a consulting job, he worked as a senior budget and management analyst for Durham, North Carolina and he is a board member of Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). “Some of this is about how we talk about our work—sharing the joy and excitement,” he said during a panel discussion at the summit.  “We should talk about what we do as a service to the community and not as a chore.”

In Illinois, Janel Forde, the director of the Department of Central Management Services, exemplifies this approach. “There’s a perception that younger people just don’t understand government. The game changer is really educating people about what we do,” she says. CMS, which handles the back office operations of Illinois government, which includes oversight of personnel, property management and the state’s fleet, is stepping up its recruiting activities and will be building a bigger internship program in 2020. But the agency is also going beyond more traditional recruiting activities to get the word out about life in the public sector.

Recruiting is not just about going to job fairs, says Forde, but about becoming an active presence on campus and in schools. This includes facilitating case study discussions focused on government work, speaking to classes, and inviting students to the office for a day or half day to watch Illinois employees at work. In a pilot program focused on job shadowing, Forde recently spent a half day with a high school student who came out of the experience with a surprising new interest in facility management. The student’s father later called Forde to say the day had changed his daughter’s life. “I tell my team we’re not just the chief recruiters for the state,” says Forde. “We’re recruiters for the public sector. We are leveraging our leadership team to be the ambassadors across the state.”

Getting an inside look at government through a fellowship program may have changed Camacho’s life. This year she was chosen to fill one of 54 fellowship spots in 43 communities through a new program called Lead For America that partners with local government, tribal governments and civically-oriented non-profits to give young men and women with a passion for public service meaningful work, many within their own hometowns. Since August, Camacho has worked under a Los Angeles County supervisor who reminds her of the ever-enthusiastic, committed and publicly spirited character of Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler on the television show Parks and Recreation from 2009 to 2015.

Working for the government that serves the community in which she was raised, Camacho has knocked on doors to enlist residents on a lead paint remediation program, often utilizing her Spanish-language skills to communicate with residents, as well as helping tackle housing discrimination issues. She also worked on a team that is preparing a diverse group of students, including many women, to be certified and earn union membership for construction jobs. Although Camacho still is troubled by the complacency that she sees in some government employees, she now has a very different image of government work. “My supervisor is passionate and enthusiastic about public service,” she says. “She makes working in local government seem like a blast.”

Even though a growing number of efforts are developing to attract young people to the public sector, both academic programs and governments officials need to find more ways to expose young millennials and members of Gen Z, generally defined as people born after 1996, to the idea that a government job is compatible with a passion for social justice and implementing positive change.

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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