The way forward to engaging Millennials in the public sector
Passionate, innovative, and highly skilled Millennials have so much to offer. But compared to generations before, there are fewer of them taking their talents to the public sector. As we watch the Baby Boom generation and the public service age together, it becomes clear that Millennials are a critical piece of the puzzle for modernizing the public sector to better meet the changing needs of citizens. The ‘golden age’ in public service that Treasury Board President Scott Brison has called for will become a distant dream if governments do not foster the environment necessary to attract, retain, and nurture the skills Millennials bring to the workforce.
Interest in joining the public service is not an issue. According to career counsellor Yvonne Collins of Carleton University, a significant number of students are seeking government internships and co-op placements. So where is the disconnect between the abundance of recent graduates looking for employment with government and the low representation of young professionals in the public service? It could have something to do with the extremely long and bureaucratic recruitment process that has applicants enduring wait times of three months or more.
For recent graduates who likely have student loan bills looming, the choice between a real job offer and a potential job opportunity in three months is an obvious one. Not surprisingly, 54% of new public servants employed for five years or less report being dissatisfied with the recruitment process. The exceedingly long process reinforces the perception that government is fraught with bureaucracy and is suffering from inertia. An overhaul is necessary.
Consultant Linda Duxbury says that Millennials who make it through the recruitment and onboarding process are telling government that a cultural shift in the public service is necessary.
“Millenials,” she says, “want less hierarchy, fewer rules, meaningful work, good working relationships, respectful managers, autonomy, recognition for their work, flexible schedules, open communication, tolerance for risk-taking, and fewer barriers to innovation.”
Duxbury is spot on. Although it is a tall order for a body that is historically slow to implement changes, it is certainly not impossible. In Facing the Future, the Institute of Public Administration of Canada reported in 2016 that, of approximately 4,600 new public servants: (1) 48.1% thought they would be working in the public sector for more than ten years when they first started, but this figure decreased to 41.2% after five years on the job; (2) 37% believe there are advancement opportunities; and (3) 28% believe there are opportunities to work across portfolios. If ever there was a time for change, it is now.
The way forward
Untangling government bureaucracy to create work environments where Millennials can effectively deploy their skills without running into constant roadblocks, test out new ideas without fear of career-limiting consequences, and be supported by open-minded leaders who embrace innovation are good places to start. We see tremendous success in the private sector, like the tech industry, where time is built into employees’ work to explore creativity and innovation in problem solving, new product research, and professional development. It is not just spoken about, it is embodied in the culture of the workplace, and that makes all the difference.
Will the ‘golden age’ Brison spoke of come to fruition? Not without a cultural shift. There seems to be a willingness to change, but that must be coupled with deliberate efforts to cultivate great leaders from the Millennial generation who can begin the process of changing the culture of the public service from the inside out. A shorter, more transparent recruitment process, along with employing Millennials who represent the diversity of Canada at all levels of leadership, is essential. Clear paths to professional advancement and a management mentorship program would also achieve the dual purpose of retaining Millennials while strengthening succession planning — a winning scenario for Millennials, managers, and the entire public service.
Embracing change is often easier said than done. Can Millennials rescue the public service? That remains to be seen. The work necessary to get there must be timely and intentional. If we fail to seize the moment, we risk being unprepared and ill-equipped to respond to the needs of citizens.
Keddone Dias is a non-profit sector director and a MPPAL candidate in the School of Public Policy and
Administration at York University. (firstname.lastname@example.org)