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Research on Recruitment and Retention

Recruitment and retention of a talented and diverse next generation of public sector workers remains a critical need — and challenge — for local governments across the country. For more than a decade, MissionSquare Research Institute (the institute) has been tracking these trends through a variety of surveys and other research methodologies. The institute examines these issues from multiple perspectives, including the employer, the employee, and those interested in public service.

Since 2009, the institute has conducted an annual survey of public sector human resources professionals in collaboration with the Public Sector HR Association (PSHRA) and the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE). The results of the 2023 State and Local Workforce Survey highlight some of the key challenges that jurisdictions continue to face in recruiting and retaining the next generation of public sector workers. For example:

Impending Retirements

While 16% of HR managers surveyed report that the largest anticipated number of potential retirements is happening right now, another 53% believe it will take place over the next few years.

Hard-to-fill Positions

Vacancies for many key occupations in the public sector (e.g., police, corrections, healthcare, engineering) remain challenging to fill, with organizations frequently needing to re-open recruitments.

Connecting with Younger Workers

Asked how successful efforts have been to recruit Generation Z employees, only 3% of HR managers report that they have been “very successful” in efforts to recruit Generation Z employees. (Generation Z is generally defined as those born between 1997 and 2012.)

In May 2020, the institute also began surveying state and local government employees approximately every six months to better understand their perspectives on their current and future employment and finances, morale and job satisfaction, and recruitment and retention issues. Findings from these surveys, most recently “State and Local Government Employees: Morale, Public Service Motivation, Financial Concerns, and Retention,” suggest that public sector workers are feeling stressed and burned out, financially insecure, and many are considering a job change.

In addition, in collaboration with Lead for America, the institute conducted a survey of local government fellowship applicants in 2022 to better understand what draws younger workers to public service careers. The fellowship applicants surveyed overwhelmingly reported that meaningful work is their top priority, followed by workplace culture and compensation.

In fall 2023, the institute continued this line of research, exploring the motivations, morale, and outlook of current state and local government employees aged 35 and under through a survey of 1,004 full-time state and local government employees. Conducted by the institute and Greenwald Research, the survey assessed motivations for working in the public sector; attitudes about current finances and financial outlook; views on employer benefits; thoughts on retirement, morale, and job satisfaction; and retention issues. Results are described in depth in the report “35 and Under in the Public Sector: Why Younger Workers Enter and Why They Stay (or Don’t).” The report, as well as a video summary of key findings, and a webinar recording and slides, are all available for view and download.

Key Survey Findings on Younger Public Sector Workers

Results from the survey indicate that younger state and local government workers have frequently had prior experience working in the public sector, whether in another public sector job, or doing part-time or seasonal work. Job security, work/life balance, health insurance, and personal satisfaction from the job tend to be the top factors that drew them to a job in the public sector.

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Many of them experience positive morale regarding their job and are particularly satisfied with their job security, their ability to serve their community, and the quality of their colleagues. The majority also believe that the benefits compensation they receive is competitive with the labor market.

At the same time, younger workers are experiencing a range of financial concerns, (e.g., rise in inflation, debt), and report high levels of stress in the past six months. While many are offered (and participate in) an employer’s defined benefit or defined contribution retirement plan, and feel they generally have a good understanding of how their retirement and healthcare benefits work, they would still be interested in additional information and education about these topics.

The relatively large share of employees (20%) not knowing whether they are offered a defined benefit or defined contribution retirement plan through their employer supports the need for more communication and information by employers about these issues.

When it comes to their job, younger public sector employees want to work somewhere that improves communities, has strong team dynamics, has a culture of intellectual engagement, and aligns with their values. Important considerations are also seeing the direct impact they are having, and being part of a workplace that is mindful of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all identities.

These workplace characteristics, however, do not take the place of competitive wage compensation, an issue that is causing many to consider changing jobs in the near future. While some are looking to stay in the same line of work but with a different employer, one in five of those considering a job change want to leave the government sector entirely.

Overall, nearly half of those surveyed would be very or extremely likely to recommend a career in public service to a friend or family member. And more than half report that they intend to remain in public service for a long time or until they retire. When asked to think about the words that best describe someone who is the best fit to work in the public sector, the most commonly listed words were caring, compassionate, empathetic, and understanding.

Seven Tips for Attracting and Retaining Younger Public Sector Workers

As state and local governments look to attract and retain the next generation of state and local government workers, there are clearly areas where public sector employers are excelling, as well as areas for improvement. Public sector employers that work to address the needs and preferences of the next generation of workers are well positioned to thrive in the competition for talent, and will be able to continue providing high-quality, key public services to the community at large.

So how can city and county managers attract and retain the next generation of public sector workers? Here are seven practical tips for organizations to consider.

1. Increase Compensation.

Only 28% of respondents surveyed were very or extremely satisfied with their salary, and 71% of those considering changing jobs report that it is because they want a higher salary. When increasing compensation is not feasible, employers can focus on better communicating the full value of the total compensation package so that employees are not answering “don’t know” to questions about how to take full advantage of their available benefits.

2. Show Appreciation and Recognition.

Only 27% of those surveyed strongly agree that they feel valued as an employee at work. Employees want to feel valued and have their hard work acknowledged. Employers can do this through a variety of ways, such as providing more flexible work schedules, acknowledging individuals at team meetings, highlighting employees who have gone “above and beyond,” and showcasing staff contributions to the wider community.

3. Provide Financial Wellness Resources.

With 27% of survey respondents feeling not too or not at all financially secure and 70% reporting that debt is a problem for them, workers are looking to their employer for help in improving their financial health. Employers can explore offerings such as emergency savings fund vehicles and automatic enrollment of employees into a supplemental retirement savings plan. Organizations can also provide free online financial wellness resources, especially those tailored to younger workers and the unique issues they are facing.

4. Prioritize Employee Mental Health and Well-being.

More than three in four respondents (76%) described themselves as very or somewhat stressed over the past six months. Employers can help reduce stressors by providing or strengthening the emotional support they offer employees (e.g., respect, acknowledgment, encouragement, or employee assistance programs) to improve morale and productivity.

5. Emphasize Employee Impact on Community.

Younger workers are passionate about making a difference in their communities. Survey respondents most frequently said that it was important that the place they work improves communities. The ability to serve their community and do meaningful work was also cited as one of the top reasons respondents chose a career in public service in the first place. Employers can emphasize the critical role that these workers are playing in providing essential services and programs to their community. This can help both in retaining existing staff and appealing to job candidates seeking meaningful employment.

6. Implement Workforce Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives.

As the overall demographic composition of the state and local government workforce continues to evolve, employees want to work for an organization that values diversity. Nearly two in three (63%) of those surveyed say it is important that their workplace is mindful of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all identities. Employers can help foster such an environment by implementing and/or strengthening workforce diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and policies. Successful DEI programs and activities (whether formal or informal in nature) can have benefits for employers, employees, and the community at large, including improving employee recruitment and retention.

7. Foster Employee Development and Succession Planning.

While 64% of those surveyed believe that, at their current job, employees have a path to develop toward other roles and responsibilities if they so desire, insufficient opportunity to advance their career was one of the top reasons survey respondents gave for why they are considering changing jobs. To preserve institutional knowledge and maximize retention of staff, employers can prioritize training, mentoring, and job rotation opportunities to develop talent and leadership potential throughout the organization.

Rivka Liss-Levinson headshot


RIVKA LISS-LEVINSON, PH.D., is senior research manager at MissionSquare Research Institute.

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