© 2006 Virginia Review, LLC

Professional Education

Opinion: Recruiting and Retaining Young Professionals in Government

By Megan McNeely

Recruiting top candidates can be a difficult challenge for state, local, and even federal government entities. Recent articles in the Washington Post, The Federal Times, and Government Executive have discussed new techniques and best practices for recruiting college graduates and working professionals to government. The theory being that government agencies offering incentive programs–student loan repayment programs, flexible work schedules, casual dress codes, transportation subsidies, telework, and retainment bonuses–are more likely to attract high caliber individuals. But once the government acquires new talent, outside of extra perks, what really makes them want to stay? What can government agencies do to keep new staff from being lured away by higher salaries and increased mobility offered by the private sector? What is it that young, smart professionals are looking for in a job?

The author is a feeral employee who has worked in both the legislative and executive branches of government. She completed her undergraduate degree in three years with a double major in political science and history, has a master’s degree in national security public policy, and a certificate in transportationas, operations, and logistics.

A training course I took emphasized that the biggest differences in today’s young professionals is that they believe they are entitled to a good job, have a strong a desire to control their own destiny, and have a greater desire for self expression, personal growth, and fulfillment. Government agency supervisors who can manage the expectations of 20 and 30 something recruits and even current employees, can decrease departures, improve morale, and give employees greater job satisfaction. The following will provide insight into the types of expectations that good supervisors should know how to manage and why this approach can be more effective than all the incentive programs combined.


New Hires Are Ready To Work– Many young professionals come to work with the energy to sustain an intense work pace. The desire to be successful and competent often temporarily overrules an individual’s need for job stability or quality of life, often two of the main selling points for government work. Even in offices with staffing shortages, new hires can sometimes sit for weeks waiting for an assignment. For example, one newly hired woman surfed the net for three weeks without receiving any substantial work, so she quit. She said it was easier to quit and find a job that gave her real work than to feel like she was wasting tax dollars. Entering a new and hopefully exciting phase in life, young professionals want their work to be meaningful and important. This is especially true for those who have only recently left academia.

What A Good Supervisor Can Do– When a new person begins the job, a good government manager will have a list of things waiting for the new recruit upon arrival. Supervisors need to communicate that a variety of tasks will be assigned, some mundane, but others unique and stimulating. A well prepared supervisor gives the newly hired recruit some insight into the type of work done in the office and provides the much needed feeling of self worth.


Most Employees Want Help Setting Professional Goals–Young professionals in government expect senior supervisors to work with them to identify a few realistic professional goals, set deadlines, and reevaluate as appropriate. Working in government is a learning process: the more time experienced supervisors are willing to invest in teaching their people how it works, the more likely an agency is to keep its employees. Taking the time to set short term individual goals could be the difference between losing and keeping a federal employee. When the meeting involves setting a new goal after a previous one has already been attained, new and old federal employees feel valued and, instead of bemoaning their ineffectiveness to facilitate change, could leave with a feeling of accomplishment and success.

True Professionals Want Feedback– Another area in career development that young professionals are expecting from the government is feedback– and not just positive feedback. Hearing that you are doing a great job is wonderful, but younger employees commonly complain that they are never certain if they are doing anything wrong. Every office has someone considered terrible at his or her job, but the problem often is that no one has told them what they are doing wrong. Managers who avoid communication will run into problems with up and coming young employees. Younger generations want constructive criticism and believe supervisors have an obligation to provide timely, constructive criticism. Their desire to be successful generally outweighs any negative effects managers may think stem from criticism. It does not do a new employee any good to be told in their performance appraisal that six months earlier they did something wrong. Some of the more inexperienced employees are unaware that they have broken any rules or crossed any lines. By allowing performance issues to go unaddressed for months, supervisors can inadvertently foster resentment and discontent within employees.

What A Good Supervisor Can Do– One of the best supervisors I ever had sat down with me on my fourth day of work and asked what my expectations for the position were. The ensuing conversation painted the workplace picture for me, helped me adjust my thinking, set my personal goals, and informed me what the office could offer to attain them. The realization was stark, but I knew where I stood, and I worked there for two years, received three promotions, and only left to get married. Supervisors should also be involved enough in the work to address inappropriate behaviors, unacceptable work, or difficult attitudes as they come up. Certainly the issues should be areas for consideration during the performance appraisal, but they should also be addressed immediately. Too often government managers do not want to tackle issues that are essential to employee growth because they want to avoid unpleasant situations.


Earn Employees Respect–The saying goes, “The government does not grow leaders.” However, young professionals want to work for supervisors who can clearly communicate, have personal integrity, are committed to and knowledgeable about their work, and are candid. In an age where most young professionals have advanced degrees, these traits establish a mutual respect. If the federal government really wants to retain the young professional, it must find and promote senior managers who are willing to establish open and sincere relationships with employees.

Give Employees the “Big Picture”– Young professionals are idealistic. They want to believe that government can and is working. If that connection can be established, today’s young professionals can become tomorrow’s government retirees. Offices with an overall strategic plan for success are attractive to new hires. It makes them feel that they can become part of something bigger, something that will have a long–term effect. Sharing insight into the amount of work an office has, how it is to be accomplished, and how the end product relates to the overall goals of the office, can keep young professionals involved. It can also encourage a healthier office environment–everyone has a purpose, even if it seems nothing is moving forward on a daily basis. New hires can rejuvenate offices and encourage other employees to continue working by promoting a sense of progress and agency growth.

What A Good Supervisor Can Do– Good government leadership ensures respect remains intact by making timely decisions, communicating the reasoning, and answering questions regarding why a decision was made. Because of the tendency of government work to be politically driven, this approach only increases the regard young professionals have for their supervisors and their confidence in their agency. Making information readily available and having a transparent decision making process will keep things in check.


To some, the management principles outlined here may seem elementary. Business management gurus and the world of academia have been teaching and writing about managing for decades. The library and Internet have numerous books about managing employee expectations; one online site alone has over 2,400 different books. Unfortunately, most government supervisors have never taken a formal management class; those that have rarely choose to stay in government. I have been a government employee since I was 21 and it is this experience that makes clear the reason young employees depart government. To my knowledge, no one has left because they did not get enough student loan money or because they could not telework. Most have left–even with a number of recruitment and retention incentives to stay–to work under good managers.

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