Millennial workers in public services

In theory, it’s a match made in heaven. So why aren’t millennials beating down the door to apply for public service jobs?
Millennial workers in public services
Nov 29th 2018

Millennial priorities include social purpose, skills and career development and flexibility. UK public service organisations offer this in spades. So what’s the problem?

Public services are at the heart of UK society. In today’s turbulent economy, it’s vital that our core public services can attract and retain the best talent to ensure they continue to fulfil their crucial role effectively in an ever-changing world.

Existing workforce models face challenges including a potential post-Brexit brain drain, an ageing workforce approaching retirement, competition with the private sector due to ongoing austerity and technology and AI skills shortages. In this article we explore whether there’s a market failure preventing millennials from choosing a career in public services. We discuss three key things that millennials are looking for from the world of work.

In conclusion, we make two key recommendations for public service organisations who want to target this key demographic to sustain and enhance their workforce and performance.

  1. Develop specific programmes to attract and retain talent in clusters
  2. Use communications and branding strategies that highlight the benefits of a career in public services

But first, what is a millennial?

The term is widely used to describe those currently aged between mid-twenties and mid-thirties. This generation entered adulthood and the world of work during the first decade of the millennium. Key socio-economic and political events have shaped the experiences of millennials, including 9/11 and the war on terror, and the 2008 financial crisis through to the age of austerity.

Millennials make up around 14% of the total UK population. A fifth of them live in London.

26% of millennials were born abroad, half in another EU country. This means millennials themselves feature significantly in the risk of a post-Brexit brain drain.

What do millennials want from work?

It’s a generalisation across a massive workforce segment…  but some trends stand out in a range of research and insights, distinguishing millennials from the preceding generations:

  • They are driven by work that aligns with their personal values:
    Millennials regularly report organisational ethics as being an important part of defining where they want to work. The Deloitte 2018 Millennial Survey suggests that the majority of millennials believe that corporations do not behave ethically, and that their leaders are not committed to helping improve society. Taken together, this suggests there is a huge opportunity for employers with a clear social purpose to attract and retain the millennial workforce.
  • They want a career, not just a job:
    Millennials are looking for roles where there are opportunities for continuous development, training, and where there is a trajectory towards leadership positions. In particular, millennials feel that employers fall short in supporting them to develop interpersonal skills, confidence, resilience and other soft skills. This doesn’t just apply to younger millennials: second or third movers (typically those aged 30-35) are looking for the sweet spot between stability and flexibility. For most, this isn’t about securing a job for life. It’s about ongoing support to develop skills and experience for personally coherent career development, continued through different employers and roles.
  • They find flexible working environments attractive:
    At the extreme end of this is the gig economy, but even in more traditional settings, millennials want more flexibility from their jobs. This includes remote working options and part-time or flexible contracts. Around two-thirds of millennials feel that it’s an acceptable part of the job to check their emails at home, compared to around 40% of older generations: there is a correlation between flexibility in working practices with loyalty to an employers (how long they expect to remain with a company.) Employers could offer increased flexibility for their staff by applying the sentiment of the gig economy to traditional jobs, for example, allowing staff to nominate their projects and choose their hours and place of work. They might then reap the reward of a motivated, committed, dynamic workforce that’s willing and able to work hard to get the job done.

Millennials, and especially the groups of millennials who are more likely to have the skills and motivation to work in public services, also want what everybody else wants from work. This includes job security, a fair compensation package, and to feel valued by their employers. This is especially important for retention of the millennial workforce, as it’s these core factors that support millennials to achieve their goals in other parts of life, such as home ownership or establishing personal savings.

How do public services measure up to millennial work expectations?

Table comparing what millennials want from work versus what the public sector has to offer

We can see from this that the public services meet these criteria to varying degrees. And it’s encouraging to note that at a graduate level, public services are faring well. According to research on the graduate market in 2018, the public sector is the second largest graduate employer with more than 4,000 vacancies a year. But there’s no room for complacency. For example, the civil service is an ageing workforce: Institute for Government analysis shows that the number of civil servants aged 50+ is increasing, whilst the number aged under 30 is decreasing.

So, what can public services do to attract more millennials?

Here are two recommendations that your public service organisation could adopt to attract and retain members of this important employee segment:

  • Deploy communications and branding strategies to highlight the benefits
    Public services roles already offer many of the things that millennials are looking for from work: flexibility, development and future leadership opportunities, and social purpose. However, perceptions of public sector jobs are an issue, with large organisations such as the NHS not ranking as an employer of choice for many of their target hires.

Practical tip
Think more creatively about how to publicise existing jobs, including the content and focus of ads, and the channels used to spread the message.

  • Develop specific programmes to attract and retain talent in clusters
    Public sector organisations could re-organise around thematic clusters to attract groups of relevantly skilled and motivated millennial workers. For example, many public services organisations have a workforce skills gap in emerging technology and digital adoption (such as data science and complex analytics.) They could design programmes to target high performers, deploying them in different parts of the organisation while providing a dynamic work environment where they collaborate with like-minded peers throughout the organisation and access tailored development and training opportunities.

Practical tip
Take inspiration from a successful model in the FinTech sector, which develops teams to look holistically at strategic business issues and opportunities. Examples include: the FCA’s Innovation Hub, Santander’s InnoVentures, Barclays Accelerator, Monzo and Revolut. Public services organisations could set up the HealthTech or EduTech equivalent.

Author: Victoria is a Senior Consultant at 2020 Delivery.