Millennial OutlookPublic Sector
November 21, 2019

Besting the private sector at its own game

Can the public sector compete in attracting and retaining talent?

Having the best public service means attracting and retaining the best employees. Ambition, intelligence, and dedication are qualities that employers cherish in their staff. Are we doing enough to ensure highly-driven people are choosing public service careers? And how can we prevent otherwise motivated employees from becoming trapped in unfulfilling roles? The challenges of attraction and retention should be mainstays of any human resource strategy and be considered pillars of success for the public service.

Lewis Eisen’s Unlocking the Golden Handcuffs targets employees who are dissatisfied with their role in the public service. This book published in 2018 dispels myths about the perceived obstacles of transitioning between the public and private sectors. It offers readers advice and tools to help inspire the transition. Eisen cites bureaucracy, lack of recognition, toxic work environment, poor morale, and unsuitable leadership as leading causes of dissatisfaction among public servants. These problems contribute to losing valuable employees to the private sector.

Negative perceptions of government work environments are real and harmful to recruiting talent. Statistics Canada reported in 2017 that 20-somethings made up 16.25 per cent of the labour force but only 10.4 per cent of federal public servants. This variance in the number of young people working in the public sector cannot be overlooked. Attracting and keeping young talent is crucial for the future of the public service.

Money can’t fix everything

Compensation can be a big incentive in attracting young talent. According to a 2015 Fraser Institute study, public sector work pays on average 10% higher than its private sector counterparts at the lower end of the employment scale. However, compensation for those at the top levels increases drastically in the private sector. While this may not be a problem when filling entry-level public service positions, talent may go elsewhere for upper-management jobs.

The pay gap for top-ranking jobs can cause problems when attracting certain types of people. According to Canada Career Counselling, the private sector tends to attract more high-achieving types. The public sector attracts more balanced, stable, risk-averse types.

People are motivated differently, and personal definitions of success vary greatly. For some, work-life balance and family time are priorities. For others, position power and compensation influence their career choices. While the public sector has better pension and job stability, the private sector offers accelerated promotion, flexible compensation, career mobility, and advanced technology. Young people tend to be less risk-averse and less likely to be driven by family commitments, leading them to choose private sector work. These factors may explain comparatively lower youth employment in the public service.

Driving forces

What seems to be common among highly-motivated people are that they love what they do and are passionate about their work. The 2017 Public Service Employee Survey reported that 80 per cent of respondents like their job and that 77 per cent get a sense of satisfaction from their work. Conversely, a recent Hays Canada study found that almost half of respondents were dissatisfied with their work.

Meaningful work and value alignment play an essential role in job satisfaction. Attracting the younger generation of workers comes down to how well the public sector can provide meaningful work. Recent surveys indicate that government employers are doing well with this internally. However, opportunities for exciting new roles in socially-conscious start-ups and community-based organizations are on the rise. Many who may have turned to the public service in the past could be headed elsewhere.

Attracting younger, motivated, hard-working, intelligent employees is ‘job one’ for the public service. Canada has one of the top public services in the world, so governments must be doing something right. But this does not mean that the public sector can become complacent or ignore emerging data. It must continue to evaluate and track employment trends to understand how to attract and retain the best and brightest. The younger generation of public servants is vital in securing our common future.

About this author

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Monica Mann

Monica Mann Is a public servant with the Government of Canada. She Is a candidate for the Master of Public Policy, Administration and Law at York University. (mmann28@yorku.ca).

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