You’ve heard this from me before: Federal agencies are facing an imminent brain drain as aging government workers retire. The stark facts: in many agencies the median worker age is over 50, and most fifty-something Feds have reached or are approaching the time-in-service requirements that qualify them for full retirement benefits.
In most agencies there’s a real sense of urgency about this challenge. But it’s not quite as straightforward as simply cycling in new grads. Senior Federal workers have unique skills and know-how that take years to acquire. Experienced Feds know the ropes in a working environment that’s very different from the private sector; they’re accomplished in ways that newcomers to the government workforce can take years to master.
So even if agencies were to replace every retiree on a one-for-one basis, agencies are still likely to fall short in productivity due to the learning curves of the less experienced. At the same time, studies of attitudes among our younger population show a general interest in public service but a less-than-enthusiastic inclination to join agencies beyond the glamorous few –EPA, NASA, and NSF, among a scant handful of others.
And I’m not the first to point out that Gen-Y types tend to display “cognitive” characteristics that could clash with accepted practices in today’s Federal workplaces, violating established, on-the-job expectations of agency managers. For instance, Gen-Y candidates seem to prefer multi-tasking to mono-focused efforts, and they’re most comfortable communicating in mixed media–i.e., not just traditional written reporting, but in audio-video formats as well. What’s more, as workforce expert Tamara Erickson points out in the February Harvard Business Review, they’re motivated more by completing assignments with distinction than by fulfilling conventional nine-to-five, 40-hour work schedules.
Is this a problem? Maybe so. Here’s my program for addressing the workforce issues that could arise from this constellation of circumstances. In the critical months and years to come, agencies should take pains to:
– 1. Communicate clearly (and in multiple media channels) what they do, what they stand for, and what’s it’s like to work for them. Call this ‘employer branding’, if you wish, or just strategic, comprehensive communication about missions and values.
– 2. Develop evolving knowledge management programs to capture and share the working wisdom and tacit know-how of their senior and most experienced people with their future leaders.
– 3. Make their processes more adaptable and flexible, given the dominant work habits of incoming workers. Train their rising managers to understand and accommodate younger workers’ most productive work styles. These initiatives should take account of remote and after-hours work, as well as “rich media” modes of communication and workplace interaction.
– 4. Explore talent pools other than the strictly Gen-Y set: disabled and second career workers, for example, as well as returning veterans (and their spouses).
These are just a few approaches that I think can help. Please share your ideas with us.