In With the Old, In With the New: The Unique Recruiting Challenge the US Government is Facing

July 12, 2016

If you read the headlines, it would seem that retaining older workers is far from a high priority for many industries. 

In a Business Insider article, a number of 50-plus tech workers talked about the rampant ageism they experienced (and sometimes doled out) once they hit 50. One admitted that when it was time to lay people off, he and fellow managers considered age when deciding who stayed and who went. "Sooner or later, your corporation will get rid of you," another older tech professional said, "not because you’re old, but because they are concerned what kind of face they put in front of their clients."

But recruiters in one sector are dealing with a different problem. State and local governments are struggling to keep older workers. Throughout the country, state and local agencies are facing an exodus of senior workers who are retiring en masse. That's causing a critical brain drain of experienced employees that's keeping government recruiters and HR professionals awake at night.

"Most states have 30 to 40 percent of their employees eligible to retire within the next five years," says Leslie Scott, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE). "It's certainly scary to see a lot of knowledge walk out the door."

The problem isn't just limited to states. "In our department alone, we could lose anywhere between 17 to 20 percent of our workforce today — folks that could leave," says Alby Bocanegra, a recruiting manager for the City and County of San Francisco. 

Making the problem even more serious: as those older workers cash out, recruiters for state and local governments are having a hard time finding young people to replace them. “Trying to attract and retain [younger workers] is a struggle,” says Scott.

Now, to fight that talent drain, government recruiters are forced to wage a unique two-front battle: one, retaining older workers and, two, attracting younger ones. 

What’s causing the talent drain?

State and local government recruiters blame a number of factors for the older worker exodus. In recent years, a sluggish economy forced many eligible workers to delay retirement and stay on the job. Now that the economy has improved, some of those workers are getting raises for the first time in years, boosting their potential retirement pay to the point where retiring finally has become a feasible option. 

As those workers head for the exits, so is another wave of workers who are just now reaching retirement age and have no economic reason to delay their departure. With states considering cuts in future pension benefits, both groups of older workers are deciding now's a great time to take the money and run.

For the state governments that have come to rely on those experienced hands, this exodus is disastrous. "We value them so much because they bring that stability and knowledge and seniority to the team,” Bocanegra says of the departing older workers. "They know how to manage that bureaucracy that comes with working in government. And when you're looking at losing those folks, that's a serious problem in government."

As for the trouble recruiting younger workers, the reason also comes down to money. The NASPE's Leslie Scott.says many young people aren’t attracted to the lower pay/generous benefits compromise that state and local governments traditionally offer their employees.,

"[Young people] frankly have student loans and aren’t as concerned about health insurance and retirement and those type of things,” she says. “The compensation mix traditionally just isn't as flexible for the needs of what we might see as a younger employee."

What the government is doing to retain senior workers

States have to get creative to keep the older workers to stick around just a little while longer. Here’s what some have come up with:

Flexible work schedules

Scott says this is a major perk for older workers, and a key way states are keeping them around. "You certainly have the example of the sandwich generation, where the folks have children and parents they're taking care of," she says. "Having that [schedule] flexibility to address some of those responsibilities at home but also maintaining a work life and a salary is often very attractive."

Deferred Retirement Option Programs

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, some states also employ DROPS to keep their senior employees around. Under a DROP, retirement-eligible workers agree to continue on for a specific amount of time for their regular paycheck. When they do retire, they get an additional lump sum bonus (it can be up to 90 percent of the salaries they'd earned during that extended employment), plus whatever retirement pension or benefits they'd accrued during their overall tenure.

Allow semi-retirement

If reduced hours or DROPs don't work, Scott says allowing some form of semi-retirement is an option, too. "Allowing them to move to some type of transitional retirement option where they just slowly reduce their work schedules and workloads,” she explains, “but the state still obviously gets to take advantage of the institutional knowledge and experience that they have. That's been very helpful.”.

Keep them engaged

And if you're going to keep workers of any age engaged, it helps to give them interesting stuff to do. "I think you just as you would attract a younger employee, let [older employees] work on different projects, new projects — just keeping them engaged any way they can," says Scott.

And, how it’s attracting young people

Even if they successfully keep their older workers, recruiters know they're still going to retire eventually. So here's how state/local recruiters are trying to bring in the next generation of public servants:

Make state/local government seem cool

Scott says state government recruiters are seeing success when they show young people the unique career opportunities available in the public sector. "[You'll have] much more responsibility earlier in government than you would in the private sector," she says of the sales pitch. "So I think those are big things that you have to offer." Plus, state recruiters aren't above exploiting a young candidate’s youthful idealism. "I think it's appealing to their sense of altruism — really wanting to do good and having those opportunities," Scott says.

Sell state/local government as a tour of duty, not a lifetime career

Scott says governments need to recognize that the long-term nature of government work no longer reflects the job-hopping mentality of 21st century workers. "The state system is set up for a 27-to-30-year careers," says Scott. "That's not how people work anymore." Bocanegra says when he's trying to recruit a young worker, he doesn't harp on long-term stability. Instead he suggests they can do a stint with the city, build their portfolio, and then leave after performing their public service. "I just say, 'Look, you could just come and do a tour of duty,'" he says. "It can be your civic duty to do something great for your state, or your city."

Speed-up and modernize hiring procedures

States and localities have started reaching out to potential new employees via social media and apps (according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, the state of Maine has seen the number of applications rise 35 percent since it launched a mobile app where applicants can apply for jobs). They’re also speeding up the notoriously glacial government bureaucracy that tends to slow hiring to a near crawl. "States are really working at speeding up the recruitment and onboarding process so that it's much more smooth, more like the private sector, than it used to be," says Scott. "If you have a top candidate, you can't wait a long time to offer them a position. They're already gone."

Bringing older and younger workers together

Once they've attracted the younger workers and retained the older workers, the next challenge for state/local personnel professionals is finding ways bring those groups together to share knowledge.

"We're creating opportunities for the seasoned staff to mentor some of our staff," says Bocanegra. Adds Scott: "States are looking at ways they can have mentors for newer and younger employees. They see it really as an opportunity to develop these newer, younger employees a little more quickly."

But of course, knowledge transfer isn't one-way. While they want older workers to pass along their knowledge, state/local governments also hope the new ideas generated by young workers — and by efforts to recruit them — can promote a bright future for all generations of employees. 

Says Scott: "I think the thinking is, let's not waste this opportunity to implement some initiatives and reforms that will help sustain the government workforce for a while.”

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* Image source: The Intern