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Will They Stay or Will They Go?
Recruiting and Retaining Excellent Local Government Employees
By Shannon David, Deputy Budget Director, City of Syracuse
I have been thinking about employee recruitment and retention a lot lately–and not just because I have been thinking about writing this blog. Anyone concerned with the success of their organization is obsessed with the topic. Recruiting and retaining excellent employees is critical to providing excellent public service, and while talent is important, I’d like to focus specifically on young local government professionals for a few reasons:
- I am a young professional who thinks about local government all the time.
- The median age for local government workers is relatively higher than other organizations, shaping the dynamics of the workplace.
- The silver tsunami’s potential impact on local government naturally elevates the importance of addressing, in particular, recruitment of young professionals
What can we do about it? How does it relate to our conversation about employee recruitment and retention? To explore these questions, I would like to focus on three basic themes:
- The Local Government Narrative
- Recruiting and Retaining Young Professionals
- Employee Excellence
The Local Government Narrative
The best organizations are thinking about whether employees will stay or go, and they care what they decide. They care about whether local government is a desirable career choice. To many of us, of course it is! However, this is not self-evident to the broader population, a phenomenon shaped largely by a negative public narrative about government. Even within local government, a certain expectation exists that if someone finds themselves in local government, they will almost certainly leave. After all, why on earth would anyone put up with the bureaucracy, red tape, politics, and angry citizens? Especially when they can make more money in the private sector.
The local government narrative is important to the conversation surrounding employee recruitment and retention. Imagine if the narrative reflected appreciation and respect for the work that local government employees do? The question would then change from, will they stay or will they go, to why they will stay and should not go. Public sector work is valuable work and local government employees deserve respect from each other, management, and the community. We should care deeply when we lose an employee and explore the reasons why they left. We should act as if we can be competitive with other employers–because we can be! We have unique personnel challenges, such as shifting political leadership, but these are not insurmountable. When we lose an employee, we should take it personally. The employee that we aren’t able to attract in the first place should be at the forefront of our minds.
Recruiting and Retaining Young Professionals
Governing reported in 2013 that seven of the top 20 industry classifications with the highest median age consisted of public sector workers. Overall, the median age for public sector workers was 45.3 years, older than the broader workforce.
Is this a problem? Of course it is! Who are we grooming to take on leadership roles in the future? How does this shape the dynamics of the workplace? The best organizations are able to balance the value of workers who have experience and institutional knowledge with those who bring vibrancy, passion, and new ideas. Young professionals have a tendency to tend to push the boundaries of the possible. They are not wedded to how things have been done. They disrupt the status quo. Experienced professionals are provide perspective that comes from experience. They provide institutional knowledge and stability. We should be concerned with bringing more young people into local government, not just because we need to think about who replaces current leadership, but also because diversity of perspective adds organizational value.
Mentors can bridge differing perspectives, a pathway for exchanging ideas between generations while working toward addressing the demographic imbalance.
Mentor is defined as, “an experienced and trusted adviser.” The best mentors are experienced professionals who advise, in particular, the next generation. They concern themselves with the question of whether young professionals will stay or go. Mentors look forward by looking backwards at who will replace them. They know that their organization, their field, their community relies on the next generation of leadership. They care about recruiting and retaining the best employees. Very simply, they care. Younger professionals will respond to that, creating a foundation for future excellence.
Employee excellence can be defined many ways, and it’s relative to the stage of one’s career. A thriving employee treats their colleagues with respect, has a desire and ability to learn new things, and produces results. Younger employees may lack practical experience, but they have a solid foundational skill set. They have a familiarity with current technology. They have ideas, passion, and potential.
A mentor is, by definition, excellent. A mentor embraces the young professional’s potential, views it as a strength, and gives people meaningful projects to grow professionally. Mentors value professional development and training, and they harness the energy that a younger person brings to the table. They use their experience to provide context and perspective to the common challenges faced. They care about recruiting and retaining excellent employees across the spectrum, but they care, in particular, about the next generation. And this improves retention.
A mentor creates a virtuous cycle where the young professional become a mentor creating conditions where the next generation can excel. A mentor changes the narrative because they care about their field and the value of public work. This demonstrates the kind of passion and respect that the field deserves. They impart the next generation of leaders with that passion and respect. They create a hook that keeps young people by showing them that someone cares–about them and about their work. We can have a greater expectation that employees will stick around if current leaders show that they care about their personal and professional growth.
What can we do about it? There are three things that we can do to begin turning the curve on some of the challenges identified here:
- Do your part to create a more positive narrative about local government.
Now my obligatory ELGL plug. We start to address this problem by having conversations just like this one. All of us engaged with ELGL are doing our part to change the narrative. ELGL and its members embrace technology, social media, humor, and a positive approach to local government. We are unabashedly passionate about what we do. The more we embrace the narrative that ELGL is helping to build, the more we make local government competitive for talent. Local government can compete with other sectors for top talent. This may sound like a herculean task given broader social and political trends that shape the current narrative about local government, but it is imperative to our communities that that we embrace that challenge.
- Acknowledge the age demographic problem, and that it is about more than succession.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. There is an imbalance in local government concerning age dynamics, and it impacts not just succession planning, but decision making as well. We need to prioritize attracting young people to local government. They are the next generation of leaders, and they provide valuable perspective that can help shape decision making for the better. Young professionals can be a disruptive force for positive change–and an organization either embraces change and encourages it strategically, or its environment changes and it is forced to change.
- Become a local government mentor.
Formal programs are not necessary– start being a mentor tomorrow. It always has been and always will be a hallmark of the best organizations. Local government should be no different. Excellent employees want to be mentored and excellent employees want to mentor. They want to teach the next generation and they care about the next generation because they care about people and their field. The employee who is mentored becomes the high performing employee that mentors. People want to be a part of that and it is critical to employee retention.
The idea is to change the question from “Will they stay, or will they go?” to “Of course they will stay. Why would they go?”