Millennial fever: Coming, going and succeeding

Being able to manage the churn that arises from millennials moving in and out of the workforce will be crucial to building an innovative federal IT culture.

IT is changing the way people in government do their jobs, the way citizens interact with their government and the way the government protects itself from threats. Managers and human resource specialists say the way the government finds and trains workers to carry out those tasks must change, too.

As baby boomers head into retirement and the millennial generation steps in to take their place, managers need to recognize their different approaches and styles -- and adapt accordingly.

Other expert insights

We asked other government and industry experts to comment on how agencies could compete with the private sector to recruit and retain top IT talent. Here are some of their suggestions:

Gunnar Hellekson, chief technologist at Red Hat's U.S. Public Sector group: "There's nothing more disheartening to a bright, energetic new hire in government IT than the tools they're forced to use. They cut their teeth in colleges and startups using open-source software and are appalled when they're handed old, proprietary tools. They'll take a pay cut and move across the country, but being forced to use five-, 10- or 40-year-old software is just too much. Open source is how they understand the world, and it's now mandatory if you want to recruit and maintain this kind of talent."

David Bray, CIO at the Federal Communications Commission: "The public sector has a lot of talent on the inside already. Recognizing, fostering and championing that existing talent would go a long way to promote public-sector IT successes. Too often we look to the outside for answers and forget to examine the inside deeper. I usually begin by asking an individual 'what brings you joy?' and then identifying how to link that person's joy and talents with what the organization needs."

Gadi Ben-Yahuda, director of innovation and social media at the IBM Center for the Business of Government: "The future IT workforce will likely be more entrepreneurial, networked and mobile, and it will demand (and merit) a seat at the table when departmental policy is being discussed. The first three attributes are interrelated: IT professionals won't just solve IT problems, they'll be advocates for best practices, which they'll learn from their peers in other agencies (their network). And they themselves are likely to move between agencies, the way developers in the private sector can move from company to company as their interests (and the needs of their companies) develop. Because of these changes, the IT shop will increasingly ask -- and will certainly deserve -- to be a part of the policy discussions that shape how their agency achieves its mission. IT will be central to agencies' operations, not merely ancillary to them."

Dominic Sale, acting deputy associate administrator at the General Services Administration: "We can and often do compete when we take the right approach. Fortunately, I think that this generation of digital natives is less focused on making lots of money than they are on maximizing their impact on the world around them. Virtually no company can compete with government when it comes to having a direct impact on people's lives. We just need to do a much better job of communicating that to our prospects."

"The millennials are more dynamic in how they think of where they can add value to their role," said Rick Holgate, CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and president of the American Council for Technology side of ACT-IAC. "All of those employees think of their opportunities in a flexible fashion. From a hiring perspective, unless we can manage that, it will be hard for us to keep up with the pace of the federal workforce."

Often, Holgate said, millennials will come in for three to five years then move somewhere else, either to another agency or the private sector.

Being able to manage that churn and not expect people to be in the same roles for 10-plus years will be the key to managing the future federal workforce, said Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and chairman of the Industry Advisory Council half of ACT-IAC.

The Presidential Management Fellows and Presidential Innovation Fellows programs have brought a number of talented young people onto the federal payroll. But many of them do not expect to make a career at a single agency, and the PIF program has been redesigned with that in mind. PIFs will now start their fellowships at agencies where they can have an immediate impact, then they might be deployed elsewhere as needed to work on different projects.

The government's willingness to tap into the private-sector talent pool for shorter-term -- but still full-time -- workers in the IT and cybersecurity fields is likely to be welcomed by millennials, Chenok said.

"There is an issue as far as government keeping up its skill set to match best practices of industry," he said. "The ability of government to do that is more about processes for bringing in talent and developing it and adapting the processes of government to tap into those skills and those people who want to come in and provide those services."

Geeks in suits

That's not to say that it's impossible to teach old dogs new tricks or to notice that they knew the tricks all along.

"I think the focus on 'young people' growing up with technology is actually doing everyone a disservice," said Jay Huie, customer services architect at ActioNet. "What's exciting about technology is that age is not necessarily an indicator of one's facility with the topics."

"It's similar to all the excitement lauding how new uber geeks don't have to dress up anymore," he added. "If a suit isn't necessary for a geek to be successful in government, then we shouldn't demonize the inverse -- that those of us wearing suits haven't been successful in transforming government. If the clothes don't make the geek, then we shouldn't care when some of us geeks wear a suit."

Huie said the Office of Personnel Management could catalyze the conversation by releasing more of its hiring and retention statistics.

"For example, we talk about retaining top IT talent, but I suspect that's not a significant challenge," he said. "If we knew how long a new hire stayed in government and [we] conducted exit surveys, it would provide some insight as to whether or not they're driven off by the bureaucracy, salaries or technology deserts -- and how long that took -- or if, in fact, a geek [who] works their way into government tends to stay."

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