How Governments Are Recruiting Young Workers

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COMMENTARY | From initiatives that allow new parents to bring their babies to work to upgraded facilities, state and local government leaders are aiming to compete with the private sector.

About twenty years ago, a budget director explained to us why the dilapidated government office buildings in his large Northeastern city would not be refurbished. “Taxpayers don’t want to see us spending money on our workers,” he said.

In recent years, managers have needed to move away from these kinds of fears.  With extremely low unemployment, intense competition from the private sector, and the difficulty of attracting and holding on to young workers, governments are now upping their hiring game in dramatic ways, including making their work environments pleasant places to be. We delved into many of the challenges of recruiting new employees, particularly younger ones, in our December 23rd commentary. This time around, we dig into a bevy of solutions.  

Public sector leaders are increasingly providing some of the workplace amenities that attract young workers to the private sector. In Texas, where the unemployment rate was a low 3.4% at the end of 2019, the comptroller’s office has been  upgrading its facilities with new restrooms, break rooms and huddle spaces, as well as looking at landscaping upgrades. “We’ve refreshed our break room and added fresh food options,” says deputy comptroller Lisa Craven.

There’s even more: The comptroller’s office recently installed an employee art gallery, “with art by employees for all employees to enjoy,” says Craven.

Texas also consults its employees on workforce improvements, as does Colorado. There, HR officials held a 45-session listening tour across the state to hear what employees would like to see in new benefits and workforce policies. “We’re thinking of what can be done to be more employee friendly so we’re spending time with our employees and asking them,” says Kara Veitch, executive director of the department of personnel and administration.

Two frequent requests in Colorado are more flexibility and greater work-life balance. Colorado has rolled out new flextime policies that put decisions for workplace schedules and telecommuting in the hands of managers. That includes training to communicate the idea that work product matters more than seeing an employee sitting at a computer in an office setting.

 “Nine to five isn’t going to work for a younger generation,” says Christine Scarlett, chief human resource officer for the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services. “We have to be a lot more flexible in how we set people’s work schedules.” She and others recognize the need to fight the image of government work as routine, and government offices as bleak or sterile. “If you’re an uptight, button-up kind of place, they’re not interested,” says Scarlett.

“We’re really focusing in on our selling points,” says Reid Walsh, Deputy Secretary for Human Resources and Management for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “How do we modernize the workplace?”

The drive to create work-life balance, build attractive work environments, and beef-up non-retirement benefits has become increasingly ubiquitous over the last three years, but the variety of efforts being used will give cities, counties and states lots of options to explore. In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills recently increased accrual rates for state employee vacation time from eight hours for each month worked to ten hours. “That’s three weeks of paid vacation a year. They want their time and we get that,” says Breena Bissell, director of Maine’s Bureau of Human Resources.

In 2016, the city of Memphis began providing employees in good standing with five hours of paid volunteer time for each two-week pay period—a boon for all employees, but particularly appealing for young workers who yearn for a hands-on way to help their communities. The volunteer hours, which need to be approved and scheduled by management, are used to mentor or volunteer in one of the city’s partner programs. Volunteer hours substitute for work at an employee’s regular job. In 2017, Memphis also instituted a student loan program that offers a $50 monthly match to employees who have been employed for at least a year. The city’s money does not diminish the amount employees pay each month but goes directly to paying down principle on the loan.

Nebraska has put a laser-like focus on the needs of new mothers. “We’re attempting to make Nebraska the best employer for new moms in the state,” says Jason Jackson, director of the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services. Its offerings include a maternity leave donation program, facility renovations that create rooms for new mothers who are breastfeeding to pump and a new wellness benefit that will be launched in 2020, which limits the total expense of pregnancy and delivery to a $500 copay.

Jackson, who is the father of four children under the age of twelve, says the state is also beginning to pilot programs that allow parents to bring babies to work with them during their first six months. Other states have established similar policies, including Arizona, Washington, Kansas, Vermont and New Hampshire. The objective: To create a workplace “in which young people who are on the cusp of family formation will have a supportive employer and work life balance,” says Jackson.

As governments increasingly listen to what younger employees want, the list of dramatic changes grows and grows, including flattening hierarchical structures and enlivening the first years of employment with more opportunity for growth. Special project work can tap the greater technical skills of a younger generation and bring an entrepreneurial zest to government. As Jackson says, “We’re not just changing the image, but actually changing state government.”

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

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