How to grow young feds at your agency

Experts offer 5 tips for retaining young talent

When it comes to keeping federal employees in their 20s and early 30s engaged and thriving in government service, NASA is often cited as an exemplary agency. Much of NASA’s success in attracting and retaining young feds boils down to its unquestionably cool mission, its embrace of Web 2.0 technologies and its culture of respecting smart people, regardless of their age or pay grade.

“When we have young people who are smart, they fit right in,” said Emma Antunes, Web manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “I don’t care if you have a 30-year career or a five-year career.”

Antunes, who spearheaded the development of NASA’s internal Facebook-like application called Spacebook, said she has found that Generation Y employees want to be trusted with responsibility, respected by their co-workers and appreciated for performing well — all of which are reasonable requests for any employee to make.

But the government’s ability to hold onto this new generation of federal employees varies greatly from agency to agency, experts say. In an analysis of recently hired feds from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2008, the Partnership for Public Service discovered that 24.2 percent left their jobs within two years, according to a report released in November 2010.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced that it was establishing clearer pathways to recruit students and recent graduates to government service, which means agencies must begin adapting to the needs of these Generation Y employees or watch hard-won, newly minted feds jump ship after only a couple of years.

Faced with a growing budget deficit, a two-year pay freeze for federal employees and potential workforce cuts in the legislative pipeline, retaining young talent is the government’s smartest and most cost-effective option to ensure it is able to achieve its mission — and keep all its employees happy.

Here are some of the best ideas from experts inside and outside the government on how to help young feds flourish at your agency.

1. Link young employees’ work to the agency’s mission.

Not surprisingly, many people say they joined the federal government because they wanted to make a difference. Generation Y, or Millennials — people born in the 1980s and 1990s — are no different.

“A lot of folks coming out of college want work that has meaning,” said Steve Ressler, founder and president of government social network GovLoop.

Ressler, formerly an IT specialist at the Homeland Security Department, said managers must tie employees’ work to the agency’s overall mission so young feds can understand the value of their contributions.

Instead of leaving employees holed up in their Washington offices all the time, Ressler suggested that agencies send workers out into the field to talk with the people who are benefiting from their efforts — for instance, by giving a young fed employed at the Agriculture Department an opportunity to meet farmers affected by his or her work.

Such an approach would help young feds feel that the work they do on a daily basis matters, and it prevents newer employees from feeling lost in the belly of a big bureaucratic agency, he added.

Tim McManus, vice president of education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, agreed that young people are motivated to work for the government based on an agency’s mission, not monetary compensation. Therefore, agencies must clearly equate what individuals are doing with how they are helping an agency achieve its goals, he said.

Enabling young feds to see how important their jobs are also means empowering them to be able to make decisions on their own. McManus said federal managers must set expectations and then allow employees a level of independence so that they have room to grow.

Enabling young employees to participate in rotation programs can also keep things fresh and interesting. The agencies that successfully retain young feds often have those types of programs, which give employees the chance to work in a mix of areas, Ressler said.

Rotations or details to other agencies let employees try new things and give them a variety of opportunities as they develop their careers, which is seen as a huge perk.

2. Be a mentor and give young feds greater responsibility.

Agency leaders must be willing to coach young feds while recognizing the technical skills young employees bring to the table.

“To the extent that agencies expect young employees to be just like the employees they are replacing — that’s a huge pitfall,” said Dave Uejio, vice president of Young Government Leaders, a professional organization with more than 1,800 members.

Uejio said that without buy-in from agency leaders, retention strategies aren’t going to succeed. Leaders must create the kind of culture that is welcoming to young government employees but benefits everybody because it permits open conversations and sharing, he added. One way to get the discussion rolling is to allow tech-savvy young feds to help others at the agency understand new IT trends.

Robert Carey, deputy CIO at the Defense Department, stressed how important it is for young feds to feel as though they can have an honest dialogue with their bosses. He also said it’s up to leaders to define the environment at their agency.

“In reality, the agency head sets the tone of the organization,” Carey said. Then “it’s up to our organization, our team to decide how to deploy the talents of these young workers.”

He said he meets with young employees every few months and talks with them about where they are in their careers, where they want to go and how to get there. He helps them chart a course toward their objectives by getting them to tell him, essentially, what they want to be when they grow up.

Jon Desenberg, a senior policy director at the Performance Institute, said federal managers should also consider giving young employees a leg up by assigning them greater responsibility.

“When you’re in your 20s, it’s not about how much money [you make] but how much responsibility you’re given,” he said. “Your first manager can be a huge influence on your career and point you in the right direction.”

Desenberg said his first boss in government gave him the work of a GS-9 even though he was a GS-6. He said federal managers shouldn’t pay attention to formal titles and instead should allow young employees the chance to do something beyond their assigned duties and see how well they do.

For their part, young employees must understand that they’re not going to be briefing the department’s secretary on a regular basis — or maybe even ever. It’s up to the young fed and his or her supervisor to foster a relationship between the two of them. But managers are the ones who need to ensure that they are taking a proactive approach to overseeing their young employees.

3. Establish clear, consistent performance measures.

Young employees should be clearly told what’s expected of them and how they will be evaluated. Therefore, managers must develop performance measures that are understandable and conducive to a healthy work/life balance.

Managers must also consider the differences between young workers and baby boomers and manage their own expectations accordingly.

Desenberg said people under 30 want constant feedback, which they often don’t get when they work for the government. He added that some agencies do not do a good job of providing consistent evaluations or linking performance with recognition or pay.

Antunes said young feds are sometimes frustrated because they feel their hard work isn’t noticed. “It can be tough for some young folks when they are getting started,” she said.

They need to hear that their work is appreciated, and they might even need an extra pat on the back for their input, she added. 

Another way agencies can hold onto young employees is by hiring the person who is best suited to a job in the first place. To do that, agencies must adequately describe what the job entails and what their performance expectations are at the outset, McManus said.

“What you’re selling on the front end has to match up with what you’re delivering,” he said.

4. Develop strong training programs.

Young feds want to grow by learning new things, which means agencies must invest in robust training programs, particularly if they want to retain their IT employees.

Generally, young employees like to know how their current experience is going to contribute to their overall professional development. Training employees in burgeoning technologies, for example, allows them to flex new muscles and use their brains in a variety of ways to stay engaged.

Terri Cinnamon, director of IT workforce development at the Veterans Affairs Department, said she sees the creation of challenging training programs as the most important factor in retaining young feds, especially in the IT field.

She said her team primarily looks for ways young employees can contribute to different projects throughout the agency and ensures that they are getting Microsoft certifications, for example.

Agencies should provide a variety of opportunities for young employees to use the latest IT and Web 2.0 tools to communicate about and work on projects, she added. And agency leaders should focus on allocating more money for training — not only for retention purposes but also for recruiting other young employees.

“The challenge for us is to be able to make sure that when [people] leave college or other IT-savvy jobs, we can compete and have IT-savvy jobs in the government also,” Cinnamon said.

Ressler said young feds are also more likely to stay at an agency that pays for graduate school or helps them repay existing student loans, which shows that the agency is committed to its employees. 

Michael Gelles, a director at Deloitte Consulting, said training and development programs will help the government create the kind of environment in which young feds can be successful by offering managers the opportunity to improve their own skills.

“Agencies today, even though constrained by budgets, need to continue to invest in developing leaders who understand the challenges and nuances of this [new] generation,” he said.

5. Use modern IT and social networks to collaborate, communicate and coordinate.

The federal workforce will eventually be led by Generation Y, and therefore it is imperative for the government to structure work around the latest technology, Gelles said.

“If the government wants to attract and retain the best talent, there need to be changes across the government and not just in specific agencies,” he added.

The Pew Research Center summed up the importance of technology to the Millennial Generation in a report dated December 2009. “They are the first generation in human history who regard behaviors like tweeting and texting, along with websites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia, not as astonishing innovations of the digital era but as everyday parts of their social lives and their search for understanding,” Scott Keeter and Paul Taylor wrote in the report.

Antunes agreed that young feds expect information to be available online so that they can participate and collaborate from anywhere. In response to some agencies’ resistance to Web 2.0 tools, Antunes said, young people often wonder, “Why be so old school?”

Interestingly, after the launch of NASA’s Spacebook, Antunes said she found that the collaboration part of the Facebook-like application was more popular than the networking features.

“The networking and chatting [are] not useful as the intranet,” she said. “People loved being able to share files easier, communicate with their peers and build ad hoc groups.”

Antunes said every agency needs access to modern tools to be successful in its mission. “When we see that as a business decision and not as some cool toy, that’s when we know we’re mature,” she said about the government.

Ressler similarly said internal social networks make it possible for more experienced employees to share their institutional knowledge and encourage new employees to collaborate.

“It’s not fun when you’re stuck on Windows 95 with a 15-pound laptop and every site is blocked,” Ressler said about government’s outdated IT. He suggested that agencies modernize and take advantage of the opportunity to move their intranets to the next level. 

Antunes said making emerging IT available for young feds is similar to complying with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that federal agencies make their electronic information accessible to people with disabilities.

When you ensure that a website complies with Section 508, the site is easier for everyone to use, she said, adding that adopting strategies that support young feds will improve retention overall.

“We will have an amazingly empowered workforce,” Antunes said. “Those things that encourage [young employees] to stay are actually good for the workforce as a whole.”


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