The coming invasion: Is federal IT ready for millennials?


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The federal workforce is getting old. By 2017, more than a third of career federal workers will be eligible to collect retirement benefits. And that means the government needs to start thinking about how it will attract and retain the next generation of IT workers.

Those workers are primarily under the age of 33 — the so-called millennials. And while they may lack experience, the federal government needs them and wants them. But it is struggling to compete with with the private sector to attract them.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, millennials, make up just seven percent of all federal employees. But by 2020 they will make up half of the entire U.S. workforce.

In order to make sure the public sector remains competitive in the labor market, Brittney Manchester, a public affairs specialist at OPM, said agencies must attract, hire and retain top talent from colleges and universities.

“This year, OPM launched an outreach initiative to engage diverse colleges and universities nationwide to ensure the federal government attracts the top talent needed to tackle our country’s most pressing challenges,” Manchester said in an email to FedScoop. “In our experience, there is a lack of understanding about the federal hiring process among college students.”

Keith Trippie, former executive director for the Enterprise System Development Office at the Homeland Security Department and now CEO of consulting firm The Trippie Group, said the biggest challenge facing government is the increased recruiting capabilities from the private sector.

“The college kids coming out of Stanford and Notre Dame, the Ivy Leagues and others are very very highly recruited, whether it’s Silicon Valley or Wall Street, investment firms or banks, there’s a lot of competition for that talent,” Trippie said in a phone interview.

“So when you do get out of college, you can have offers before you get out and the capitalistic model can be pretty enticing,” he said. “The benefit, coming into the government side, is less about financial gain but more about civic pride.”

Trippie, a FedScoop FedMentor, recommended a competitive model that could recruit young people and bring them into the federal workforce, perhaps through competitively-paying “term appointment” hirings.

“What I’d like to see is … ways to hire these recruits with little to no professional experience, but bring them in and maybe look at something around term appointments,” Trippie said. “Three or four year term appointments, where you can pay a recruitment bonus and you can pay competitive rates that they would be getting on Wall Street, or investment firms, or Silicon Valley.”

One way OPM has attempted to make jobs for millennials more available is through the platform. In order to increase awareness of the hiring process, Manchester said the agency is educating students, faculty and career counselors about how USAJOBS can work for them.

“We are educating students, career counselors and faculty about how to find and apply for federal jobs on and informing them about the exciting job opportunities available in the federal sector,” Manchester said. “Some of these outreach sessions are conducted virtually.”

According to Manchester, OPM has been looking at how the federal government is disseminating recruitment information and attempting to find out if there are barriers on USAJOBS while completing the application process. The agency is also looking to social media to attract millennials.

Matthew Goodrich, the project manager for FedRAMP at the General Services Administration, entered the federal workforce as a presidential management fellow, a member of an OPM-backed program to introduce young people to the federal workforce. Goodrich suggested another way to increase the number of millennials in the workforce is to reduce the length of the hiring process.

“Recent graduates, crippled by student loan debts, cannot afford to wait through a months-long HR process,” Goodrich said in an email. “It’s unreasonable to expect these talented and qualified individuals to wait that long when they are highly sought after. Many agencies are looking at improving the hiring process as a key component to attracting recent graduates and talented qualified individuals.”

The GSA’s newly-formed 18F team has reduced the time to hire by 70%, according to a blog post last month from the team.

Trippie also said a fundamental shift in the government’s workflow could help recruit and maintain young people. He suggested a shift toward a more mobile government could entice students fresh out of college who do not want to resign themselves to a legacy-based government. A shift in the standard 8 a.m t0 5 p.m. work day might also accommodate students’ preferences, Trippie added.

“In this new model, part of the recruitment would be flexible hours, not just you can telework a day or two every week, but you can come in 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning and then maybe not leave until 7, 8 [or] 9 o’clock at night.”

Bryan Short, founder of the True North Millennials, a group that gathers millennials together to attempt to aid fledgling businesses get off the ground, agrees. Short said a standard work day takes away from the productivity and motivation of millennials.

“I think that a lot of people, a lot of millennials, when they have a lack of control, or they’re told that they have to stick to a 9-to-5, it’s a way of taking motivation away from them, saying that they can’t do something,” Short said. “I know a lot of people, with technology nowadays, would actually wake up later in the day and probably work until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning.”

But the outlook and experience of millennials could be both an advantage and an obstacle when it comes to serving in government, Goodrich suggested.

“Millennials are a generation accustomed to changes happening all around them,” Goodrich said. “Working in the federal government challenges millennials to effect change on a large-scale by working with constants that cannot change,” such as laws and regulations, Goodrich said.

Yet, Short suggested that the millennial challenge might really come down to expectations and the rules of the road.

“I think a lot of the millennials were pushed down over time, as we were growing up and maybe told that there are certain rules to the game that we have to abide by,” Short said. “Then there’s other millennials that really don’t want to follow those rules and understand that being open-minded and being leaders and getting the chance to be leaders is really what they want.”

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Agencies, Brittney Manchester, Bryan Short, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Departments, General Services Administration (GSA), Government IT News, HR, Keith Trippie, Matthew Goodrich, millennial, Millennials, mobile and wireless, mobility, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Tech, workforce