This challenge is not new, but it has risen to a new level. Every two years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases a “high risk” list of federal operations in need of transformation.4 Strategic human capital management has appeared on this list since 2001; in 2021, it was flagged as an area that has become worse. The GAO’s assessment stems from government’s inability to hire and retain individuals in critical fields, including cybersecurity, enforcement of tax laws, and management of IT acquisitions.5
More than mere numbers, when you talk to public managers looking to hire professional and technical talent, you will often hear the same story: Can’t hire them, can’t keep them. This is at a time when the public sector is facing a slew of complex challenges, from climate change to cybercrime, that require highly skilled workers.
What’s behind the current crisis-level challenge in attracting talent? After all, government is still offering the same type of value proposition it always has: below-market compensation for skilled professionals, but higher than typical job security, a secure retirement, and a strong sense of purpose.
What has changed is the value that the private sector is offering: high compensation, flexibility, and rapid career advancement. What workers, particularly younger workers, want has also changed. Data shows that there has been a significant shift in worker values, and a recalibration of how high-skill professionals view work in the context of their lives. Today’s younger workers often want flexibility across all dimensions, an opportunity to exercise their entrepreneurial spirit, and an employer that promotes their well-being. They also care a good deal about compensation, and not as much as prior generations about a possible pension. More than any other factor, this shift in workers’ values has made the traditional “employee value proposition” of the public sector less appealing for many. However, there are steps that government can take to help dramatically improve its ability to recruit and retain top talent.
There may be current legislative constraints that prevent agencies from making big changes to attract and retain talent. However, the current circumstances—labor market shifts, changes in worker values—make a strong case for agencies to work with legislative bodies to bring policy changes that can enable the flexibility they need to compete for top talent.
The world of work has changed
The past 20 years have seen a massive shift in the labor force—gradual at first, then drastic, as the pandemic amplified existing trends. Every aspect of work—the what, where, and when of it—is being transformed. Moreover, a shift in worker attitudes is remaking the workforce, as retiring baby boomers are replaced by Generation Z. The result is a massive shift in what workers want from their relationship with their employer.
The transformation of the labor force that we are experiencing is truly unprecedented. In November 2021, the US Department of Labor reported 4.5 million workers (about 3% of all workers) quit or changed their jobs, the highest number in history.6 Gig work is exploding—with the gig economy growing 33% in 2020 and adding 2 million new gig workers—as is the ability to “work from anywhere.”7 And even while automation is eliminating some routine jobs, the demand for skilled workers is as high as ever: As of December 2021, there were nearly two openings for every job seeker, with some 10.9 million job openings.8
These shifts are impacting both the private and public sector. Companies have responded by increasing pay, offering more flexible employment arrangements, and focusing on employee wellness, especially when it comes to professional and technical talent. Government is changing as well. Since the pandemic, it has dramatically increased its use of work-from-home and hybrid work arrangements. But it has often been less responsive than the private sector in offering employees key elements of what they are looking for—and finding.
Life versus work: What do today’s workers want?
A closer look at attrition shows that the so-called “great resignation” is not a great resignation at all. Just as an avalanche is composed of thousands of tiny snowflakes, the “great resignation” reflects the shifting values of millions of individual workers.
In 2000, the labor force participation rate stood at 67.1%, and stayed in that vicinity until the financial crisis of 2008, when rates slowly began dropping. The pandemic caused a notable dip, and while rates have rebounded from the 2020 low, labor force participation in 2021 stands at 61.7%—rates not seen since the late 1970s.9
For many, the pandemic prompted reflection about what is most important in their lives. Work, it turns out, wasn’t as important as many had thought, and people became less willing to center their lives around their job. In a global worker survey, 65% said the pandemic had made them rethink the place that work should have in their life.10 The share of US adults who cited their career as a source of meaning has declined from 24% to 17% since 2017.11 In a recent study, 47% of respondents said they are more likely to put family and personal life over work than they were before the pandemic.12 While some left the workforce altogether, many more reflected on what they wanted to get out of their jobs. We’ve already noted that November 2021 saw 4.5 million workers leave their jobs, the most in history.13 Many left their job for a better one. But what exactly did they see as “better”?