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Uncle Sam Wants Fresh Talent
Business Journal

Uncle Sam Wants Fresh Talent

As baby boomers near retirement, the U.S. government confronts a daunting challenge: replenishing its ranks of employees and senior managers

by Bryant Ott

The old slogan "Uncle Sam wants you" is taking on new meaning. That motto was once used to recruit young Americans to the military. But now it could apply to the federal government at large.

The federal government will have to recruit legions of new talent amid steady competition from companies and organizations in the private sector.

That's because the U.S. government is facing a twofold employment challenge: The oldest of the nation's 70 million-plus members of the baby boomer generation -- people born between 1946 and 1964 -- will turn 62 in the next couple of years, becoming eligible for retirement. And, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), 60% of the federal rank and file workforce will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years, with 40% of that group likely to retire when they reach eligibility. What's more, 90% of federal senior executives will reach their eligibility for retirement in the next 10 years.

This convergence leaves government leaders with the daunting task of filling a large number of the nearly 2 million jobs within the federal government -- not counting the U.S. Postal Service -- while bracing for the loss of some of its most experienced managers. And if these circumstances weren't challenging enough, the federal government and its agencies will have to recruit legions of new talent amid steady competition from companies and organizations in the private sector.

How can the federal government plan for the large number of retiring workers, recruit the best possible candidates for the substantial number of jobs that might become vacant, and fill these vacancies?

The Council for Excellence in Government (CEG) and OPM are searching for answers to these and other queries, and they're doing so by asking more questions. Who wants to work for the government? Why do they want a job in the federal workforce? What do they perceive as positive aspects of working for Uncle Sam? Are they aware of and interested in working for specific government agencies?

Who's interested in working for Uncle Sam?

To find answers, the CEG conducted a Gallup Panel survey of nearly 2,600 Americans in September and October 2006, asking respondents to share their views about many aspects of federal employment in general, as well as about some specific federal agencies.

CEG, a national nonpartisan and nonprofit organization founded in 1982, works to improve the performance of government at all levels, including attracting and developing talented individuals for public service. "We plan to share this data [from the survey] and future research, as well as best practices in marketing, branding, recruiting, and retaining highly productive employees, with leaders in the executive branch of the government," says Patricia McGinnis, president and CEO of CEG.

The work between CEG and OPM is one example of such collaboration. OPM, which serves as the human resources department for the U.S. government, provides guidance and technical assistance to federal agencies in every level of human capital management, including recruiting, selection, development, and compensation and benefits.

To identify the kinds of people the government is seeking to employ, OPM and CEG worked with Gallup to define the segments of the U.S. working population that would be the best sources for job candidates. "We considered, from the government's perspective, what types of talent would most be needed for the government workforce of the future," says Darby Miller Steiger, director of research for the Gallup Panel.

The survey results specifically highlight opinions and perceptions among three segments that government leaders have identified as being the foundation of the future federal workforce:

  • Generation Y (Gen Y): people born between 1977 and 1988; the future workforce of America. The federal government will be counting on this generation to help fill the openings left by the baby boomers in the next decade and beyond.
  • Government-Go-Gets (G3s): current professionals whom the government deems as key prospects for future federal employment. These individuals include scientists, lawyers and public-policy makers, engineers and computer science professionals, and community and social service workers -- crucial prospects for important government sectors.
  • Managers: those currently in positions in the private or nonprofit sector who potentially could replace retiring senior-level government managers and supervisors.

To aid OPM and CEG in developing specific strategies to recruit the best candidates for the future federal workforce, Gallup gauged interest among these key prospect groups by asking the following question: Regardless of whether you are currently seeking a job, how interested are you in a career in the federal government? About one-third of Gen Y respondents and 3 in 10 G3s say they are interested in a career in the federal government, as opposed to only 17% of managers who say they're interested in such a job.

Who Wants To Work For The Government

And while one-third of the Gen Y population might seem like a small percentage, it equates to more than 15 million young Americans who may be interested in a career in the federal government -- a number that could replenish the jobs left vacant by retiring baby boomers. "There are only about two million jobs in the federal government, and when you translate the real numbers, the percentage of Gen Y showing interest in federal government work looks amazing," Steiger says. "Even if just a fraction of the fifteen million were to apply for government jobs, then the situation would be under control from a numbers standpoint."

The U.S. government offers some of the most intriguing jobs in the world -- and the variety of jobs is nearly unlimited.

But it isn't strictly a numbers game. OPM and CEG both identified the G3s as the prospects who would best fit specific occupations in federal government work -- jobs that are of utmost importance in the building of the future workforce. "The U.S. government offers some of the most intriguing jobs in the world -- and the variety of jobs in the federal government is nearly unlimited," says Warren Wright, managing partner of Gallup's government group. "We need our best and brightest representing America in these jobs."

"What's in it for me?"

One crucial step for the federal government and its agencies is to research the opportunities that key prospects like members of Gen Y and G3 look for in their career choices. Gallup survey respondents answered a battery of questions, rating the importance of the following five workplace values as they relate to respondents' career choices:

  • Intellectual Stretch: intellectually stimulating work opportunities, as well as the opportunity to be innovative and creative.
  • Mission Match: placing employees in the correct position based on their skills and talents as well as their belief in the mission associated with the role.
  • Growth Potential: an environment in which the employee has potential for growth and learning opportunities.
  • Compensation and Benefits: a competitive salary and benefits package.
  • Job Security: an environment in which the employee feels secure in his or her employment.

According to the data, compensation and benefits is the most important workplace value for managers and G3 respondents. However, growth potential tops the list for members of Gen Y, while compensation and benefits ranks third. Intellectual stretch is considered the second most important workplace value by each of the three key prospect groups, while mission match is the least important to each group.

G3 respondents place different levels of importance on each of the workplace values depending on their career track. Those who are currently in community or social service careers are most likely to say that mission match is their most important workplace value, while intellectual stretch is mentioned frequently by respondents who are employed in the sciences and in law and public policy. Compensation and benefits is also mentioned by a large percentage of respondents in each career category.

From findings to strategies

OPM's goal is to ensure that every aspect of the U.S. government's human capital management is executed as effectively as possible. The agency created the Career Patterns initiative, which Linda Springer, director of OPM, describes as a way to attract talented individuals for government careers. The program helps identify different behavioral and preference patterns among prospective candidate segments -- like the G3s.

Springer has worked closely with Gallup and CEG to analyze the survey and determine the impact of the findings on the federal government. "There's a good nexus between the findings and results and the Career Patterns, for example," Springer says. "The Gallup information helps us to understand even further what drives the interest of the different segments of the population that are looking at government jobs." She adds that the results help determine what values are important and what mindsets individuals are in when they're evaluating these job opportunities.

For instance, one workplace value deemed by OPM as important among prospective government employees is the availability of flexible work arrangements. This wasn't rated as highly among survey respondents, which was somewhat of a surprise to Springer. "We considered flexible work arrangements and telework to be important components to a number of people, and it wasn't really valued highly by the people participating in the survey," she says.

Springer also points out that the ratings given to some of these values depend on where certain candidates are in their career timelines. She says that Gen Ys are in the early stages of their careers, and they want to make contact with other people like them. G3s, she says, tend to work in social services, public policy, or other areas in which they naturally would gravitate toward interacting with others. And managers are used to working face-to-face with others. "This doesn't mean that flexible work arrangements and telework are not appropriate in some situations, but for these groups, it's clearly not a high-priority selling point," Springer says.

Perception versus reality

The survey also enables OPM and CEG to research respondents' perceptions about the differences between government work and private-sector opportunities. McGinnis says she was surprised, for example, at what she considers a significant disconnect between what the candidates in the key segments of the public value in a job and their perceptions of what the government offers in terms of those values.

Respondents rate the private sector as better than the federal workforce in areas such as pay, being mission-oriented, and innovation and creativity in the workplace.

According to the data, respondents rate the federal government better than the private sector in terms of benefits and job security. About 4 in 10 respondents say that both public and private employment offer about the same opportunity for promotion and good work environments. However, respondents rate the private sector as better than the federal workforce in areas such as pay, being mission-oriented, providing a competitive environment, attracting the best and brightest candidates, and -- with the biggest disparity -- innovation and creativity in the workplace.

As mentioned above, intellectual stretch is considered the second most important workplace value by each of the three key prospect groups. When coupled with respondents' perceptions that the private sector is better for innovation and creativity, this creates a challenge for the federal government.

Part of that challenge, as Springer says, is countering perception with reality. "Intellectual stretch is a value proposition that each of the key prospect groups rated very highly, and we think that it is something that is provided in many ways by the government," she says. "There is no opportunity, no profession, and no occupation that can't be sought after in the United States government. There is no other business entity in the world that can say that. But what we're dealing with in all these cases is perception, and in some cases, perception matches reality -- and in some cases, it's not exactly the same. One of the values of this survey information is that it gives us the ability to deal with perceptions that we believe can be made even more aligned with reality."

Taking action

Both CEG and OPM are responsible for collecting, dispersing, and helping to implement these results among leaders in government. Led by Springer, OPM provides these results to each of the 24 Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCOs) who represent government executive departments and agencies. Each CHCO, in conjunction with OPM, serves as the chief advisor for all human resources management issues and strategies -- including selection, development, training, and management of high-quality employees -- at his or her respective agency.

Springer, McGinnis, and Wright recently shared the results from the survey with a group of CHCOs, who Springer says were intrigued by the findings. "They were particularly interested in the brand perceptions related to each of their agency's reputations and names."

The survey measured awareness of and interest in working for 25 specific federal agencies; the findings show that awareness of an agency's mission doesn't necessarily translate into interest in working for it. The U.S. Postal Service is one example -- almost all respondents are aware of the mission of the Postal Service, yet a very small percentage think it would be interesting to work there. However, agencies such as NASA, the CIA, and the Department of Defense garnered high rates of both awareness and interest. "I've been hearing from many heads of the agencies we ranked on interest and awareness, and they all say the same thing: 'We never knew that, and we really need to know that,'" McGinnis says.

Awareness Of - And Interest In - Key Federal Agencies

Bottom line

These results -- and findings from subsequent polling -- are examples of the timely and dynamic information that the nation's leaders need about who they are trying to recruit and what those candidates look for in their careers. "Everyone in government is focusing on these groups and wondering how to reach them, and for the first time, we provided actual data to inform the strategies and actions of government," McGinnis says.

But, as McGinnis adds, OPM and CEG are just beginning to fully realize a great understanding of the future federal workforce. She says that this kind of information is helpful, especially when gauging public perception of specific areas of government. "In particular, the branding information from this study will be very helpful to us as we position federal agencies to be successful in attracting talent in a market that is increasingly becoming a seller's market," McGinnis says. She adds that research like this will bring a fair share of recognition to the federal government, allowing groups like OPM and CEG to portray federal employment opportunities in the best possible way.


Bryant Ott is a writer and editor at Gallup.

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