Keeping Generation Y on board

Adam Cole is a senior director at the Corporate Executive Board and works with public-sector executives on workforce issues.

Attrition in the federal workforce is at an all-time low, but a closer look at separation rates reveals that there is still reason to be concerned.

Although experienced employees have been slow to leave their agencies in recent years, young workers have been much more mobile. In 2011, federal employees younger than 30 quit their jobs at a rate five times higher than their counterparts over the age of 30. Although 13 percent of 20-somethings left the civil service in 2011, many more are at risk of leaving: 31 percent report that they will consider leaving their organizations in the next year, according to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

The combination of an unstable young workforce and an imminent retirement wave poses significant worries for human resources directors. Retaining the public servants of tomorrow and the institutional knowledge needed to operate efficiently and effectively is critical, yet daunting challenges face the federal chief human capital officer community.

Despite the urgency of these human resources challenges, many agencies fail to appreciate the extent to which retention can affect the bottom line. Vacancies limit team effectiveness, and new entry-level hires typically take months to reach their full productivity potential. Meanwhile, recruiting and on-boarding new employees cost agencies thousands of dollars per hire, and considerable hours are required from managers for training.

So what's the best way to retain younger employees?

Some believe that Generation Y is fundamentally different from previous generations and that they should be managed differently to be fulfilled in their careers. Others suspect that workers today are not so different from those of the past, and ultimately they want an authentic experience and a real opportunity for career advancement. So which theory should we trust?

Researchers from the Corporate Executive Board put this question to the test and analyzed which workplace characteristics have the biggest impact on federal employees’ intention to stay at an agency. Using the 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, we tested discrete workplace characteristics and their impact on the intention to stay of experienced public servants (ages 50-59) and the next generation of public servants (ages 20-29).

The analysis showed that both age brackets shared seven of the top 10 drivers of intention to stay, illustrating that these groups are not so different after all. Three themes permeated the top drivers for both generations.

  • Employees want to be positioned for success. Employees need to feel that their talents are being used in the workplace and that they have an opportunity to acquire a better job in the organization.
  • Employees want capable managers. Managers should involve employees in decisions that affect their work, demonstrate competence and work well with employees of different backgrounds.
  • Employees want a learning environment. Employees must feel that there are opportunities to improve their skills in their organization and that their managers are committed to their development.

However, there are some subtle differences between the two age groups. Development opportunities and recognition are more important to young employees, while more experienced employees place greater value on clear expectations and communication from management.

So as agencies ponder how to retain their best and brightest young workers, the answer is not to devise a new formula. Ultimately, what motivates millennial workers is not fundamentally different from what motivates those with more experience. Providing development opportunities and meaningful recognition have always been key tenets of management, and reinforcing both does not need to cost the agency much, if anything. Amid the commotion of constraining budgets, it is nice to know that the public-sector manager has a fair amount of control over the retention of their workers.

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Reader comments

Wed, May 16, 2012

Let the people leave if they want. They have no place to go and there are plenty of others who want their jobs - and by people just as capable. I have been constantly hearing for over 11 years when I joined the Feds about this supposed crises of the large number of employees who are elgible or nearly elgible for retirement. Supposedly we will have a massive brain drain - and the end of the world is near! Seriously, this is just a bunch smoke and mirrors designed to get some extra attention or money to people who do not deserve it. I say we fire these noise makers, concentrate on the real problems at hand, and we will be a lot better off.

Wed, May 16, 2012

Getting young workers to stay or acquiring new talent young or old is all related to one major flaw in the federal employment arena.......the General Services System! I have heard many people support this system because it is fair for all. It is NOT FAIR FOR is THE SAME FOR ALL.....and that is the problem. How do you think you will attract young talent when you tell them they will get their regular raises and step increases just like everyone else? No matter what my output or innovation I get the same as the guy who does crossword puzzles all day? Why stay? Trying to acquire a experienced and talented programmer with experience? Tell them they will come in at a GS-xx and there is no room for negotiation. Convince teh talent to leave a job with 5 weeks a year vacation to begin earning an hour or two of leave every pay. No room to negotiate matching leave or other compensation items. If you cannot provide a system where the hard working and innovative are rewarded and the lazy and unmotivated are weeded out how do you think you will attract talent of any age? When the only thing you can offer is a rock hard caste system with no room for negotiation, how do you think you can acquire talent of any age. Get rid of teh General Services System and you will go a long way in improving your ability to hire talent of any age.

Wed, May 16, 2012 MBA

The economy sucks everywhere except the DC metro area. Most of these kids will have no choice except to stay in Federal service. Again, the DC metro area is an exception. Beltway bandits could poach younger empoyees.

Wed, May 16, 2012

They will be in charge for a long time. If they are like the baby boomers, gen "X" is even more screwed!

Tue, May 15, 2012 Cowboy Joe

Well there's some news for ya' ... Us old bulls (and does) closer to the top of our careers are more worried about "good management" so we can get our jobs done and go home to things that matter - like beer and fishin'. And the greenhorns are more worried about learnin' and advancing past the ranks of greenhorn. That article reads kinda' like a George Carlin weather report.

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