A combination of workforce challenges that has been on the horizon for years is beginning to make its presence felt for the public sector. Over the course of 2020, the well-known “Silver Tsunami” accelerated as a larger cohort of baby boomers left the workforce, posing a threat of significant attrition in the ranks of the public sector.
According to Pew Research, in the third quarter of 2020, about 28.6 million Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – left the labor force due to retirement, a year over year increase of 3.2 million. This marks a significant acceleration since the beginning of this generational transition in 2011 when the eldest boomers became eligible to retire, eclipsing the previous largest year over year increase of 2.5 million, which occurred between 2014 and 2015.
While the goal is to have tech-savvy millennials fill the void, the public sector struggles to recruit and retain them. At a time when demand has never been greater for its services, the public sector will need to balance continuing to provide for its constituents with the need to quickly rebrand and rebuild its workforce with next generation talent.
However, this is not a simple task. There’s no question that the younger cohort of the workforce expects a wholly different experience at work than their baby boomer counterparts. While many false stereotypes persist about this often misunderstood generation, including their inclination to job-hop, their lifestyle and work preferences may actually lend themselves well to our changing world. For instance, a study by Boston Center for Work and College found that the top career goal for millennials is a desire to take on increasingly challenging tasks. As repetitive work is increasingly being automated by technology, this focus on building skills and chasing meaningful work may actually benefit organizations – particularly the public sector.
However, the perception of the public sector as a slow-moving bureaucracy stands in the way of attracting this next generation of workers, and in sharp contrast to their desire for a technology-driven workplace that provides meaningful work. This gap between what they want and what they believe the public sector can offer is significant, and is further compounded by the fact that other industries are doing a great job of delivering on these wishes.
Take the tech sector, for example. It has made significant investments in technologies that support the workforce, and view this as a critical part of their ability to recruit and retain top talent. They realized many years ago that the right technologies can help align the work their people do to the broader organizational goals and overall mission, helping employees understand the purpose and value of their work. Elements like learning platforms to offer personalized skill building and career development, and analytics and workforce management tools that have helped tech-driven managers work smarter, continue to win the day as the war for talent continues.
There’s a lot of ground to make up, but if technological advancement is made a priority, there is enormous potential for the public sector. Its blend of competitive salaries, job security, and purposeful work is a combination few other sectors can match. And if they can shore up their lagging innovation roadmap, they are poised to break through the negative stereotypes and transform their employer brand to one that matches the wants and needs of the coveted next generation of talent.
While public sector organizations understandably feel the pressure to delay technology upgrades during these uncertain times, investing in the right workforce technology needs to be pushed to the top of their to-do list. If not, the sector runs the risk of letting the gap between it and the private sector grow even larger when it comes to their respective employer brands, hindering their long-term ability to deliver the best outcomes for citizens. As we’ve experienced over the last 12 months, that isn’t a risk worth taking.
Gianluca Cairo has over 15 years of senior leadership experience in operations, strategic planning, and public affairs, and is Industry Principal, Public Sector at Ceridian - a global human capital management (HCM) software company.