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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