What workers want is changing. That could be good for government

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Labor shortages are causing many problems across industries, but when US government jobs lie vacant, it ripples through the fabric of American life. Think long security lines at airports, stalled highway construction projects, difficulties scheduling an appointment at the local DMV, or teacher shortages at public schools.

Many Americans have already felt the impact of these workforce deficits, and the problem is poised to get worse. Increased federal funding to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, boost supply chain resilience, and respond to rising geopolitical tensions promises to create new civil-service jobs at a time when the public sector is falling even further behind the private sector in the talent race. For every ten government jobs posted from July 2021 through August 2022, roughly four were filled—the worst rate of the ten major economic sectors tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1

Closing the talent gap is a top priority for senior leaders we’ve spoken to across all levels of government. Although the public sector has unique challenges in attracting and retaining civil servants, it also has unique strengths it could leverage. Because what workers want from a job is changing.

In April 2022, McKinsey surveyed more than 13,000 workers globally to understand what would make them want to stay, leave, or return to their jobs over the next three to six months (see sidebar, “About the research”). The report was supplemented by a separate survey of 1,500 individuals employed by US federal, state, and local government entities.

Our findings reveal that compensation, meaningful work, and workplace flexibility top the list of factors civil servants said would keep them in their current roles. Those who were planning to leave cited a lack of career development opportunities, unhappiness with leadership, and compensation as their top reasons for heading for the door (exhibit).

Meaningful work and workplace flexibility are top levers in public-sector workplace mobility.

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Two horizontal bar charts side by side show reasons why public-sector employees plan to stay in or leave their current roles. In the left-hand chart, top reasons to stay are compensation, meaningful work, and workplace flexibility. In the right-hand chart, top reasons to leave are career development, leadership, and compensation.

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Most government leaders cannot easily change compensation levels—a disadvantage when inflation is high2 and private-sector employers are raising wages to partially offset that blow. However, our survey found that the public sector has advantages over the private sector that it could leverage in the race for talent.

Both our global and public-sector surveys reveal that today’s workers want more than just a paycheck. They want their jobs to have meaning and purpose—that is what public service is all about. Indeed, it is why 40 percent of our survey respondents said they plan to stick with the civil service.

Another key finding is the role leadership plays in retaining government workers. Less than 10 percent of our public-sector survey respondents cited leadership as a key reason for staying. But more than 40 percent said they were thinking of leaving due to uncaring and uninspiring leadership, compared with 29 percent of respondents in our global survey. This suggests that government leaders who inspire their workers could play a crucial role in talent retention.

Our survey suggests that all levels of government could build on the public sector’s bedrock proposition of meaning and purpose and embrace other qualities that appeal to today’s workers to amplify their value proposition, while also transforming hiring processes to attract and retain the talented, motivated workers the nation needs.

Here’s how government leaders could get it done.

Tackling critical gaps today, laying a stronger foundation for tomorrow

Transforming how the public sector attracts, develops, and retains talent won’t happen overnight. Our experience has shown that a two-phased approach, encompassing short-term actions to help address critical and growing talent gaps today along with longer-term initiatives, could transform talent strategies and create sustainable change to meet tomorrow’s needs.

Phase one: Address today’s gaps

Understand who you need. Phase one begins with identifying which tasks and “jobs to be done” are critical to the mission. While most public-sector entities may already do this to an extent, how they assess those needs may have room for improvement. For example, if government agencies assume there is sufficient backfill for every vacancy and there isn’t, key positions and skill sets may not get the hiring resources the mission demands. Reassessing needs not just in the short term, but across a five- to seven-year horizon, could further focus recruiting and retention efforts on the most essential roles and skills and create a workforce structure that is more adaptable as needs change.

Sharpen the value proposition. Job security, stability, and robust benefits such as pensions have long been hallmarks of public service. But our survey shows that workers today place a premium on a sense of purpose, flexibility, and the potential for professional development and advancement. Governments have a significant built-in advantage when it comes to purpose and meaning. Leaning into that value proposition with a succinct, well-crafted job description while offering greater flexibility and professional-development opportunities could help reach and attract the next generation of public-sector employees, including those with highly competitive skill sets. It’s important to note that while our survey shows workers today want greater flexibility, that does not merely mean working from home or a hybrid arrangement. Workers want flexibility in how and when they do their jobs as well. Government could embrace these qualities and, in some cases, even lead the way for the private sector, rather than the other way around.

Be proactive. Rather than passively wait for applications to roll in, government agencies could actively seek out candidate pools. Leveraging job listing platforms and data and analytics, as well as utilizing third-party recruiters, could help identify promising candidate pools for mission-critical roles and occupations. A proactive approach could also help support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts by raising awareness among more diverse candidate pools. Studies show that women and job seekers from historically marginalized communities are less likely to apply for a position if they don’t feel 100 percent qualified.3

Close the deal. Most job seekers don’t want to wait for months while an overly complicated hiring process grinds on—and often don’t have to, given the tight labor market. A report4 by Neogov found that government agencies take three times longer than the private sector does to fill an open position. If those high-potential candidates are languishing in public-sector pipelines, private-sector firms have ample time to snap them up. In some circumstances, government hiring timelines could be shortened by adopting practices used by the private sector, such as batch interview days with background checks and other elements streamlined or parallel processed to accelerate decisions. One federal agency tried a customer-focused approach that used both the candidate and hiring-manager perspective to develop a pilot program that updated and improved processes, data, and systems. The pilot was then extended and scaled, resulting in a 750 percent year-over-year increase in hiring yields across the agency.

Phase two: Lay the foundation for tomorrow

As they take short-term actions to fill mission-critical roles and skill sets, government agencies could simultaneously lay the foundation to continually meet the public sector’s evolving talent needs.

Effective, inspiring leadership. Ensure leaders are equipped with the skills, resources, and capabilities to lead effectively in the new normal. They in turn can drive efforts to highlight inspiring government work and the heroes within to continually emphasize the higher calling of public service. Take, for instance, Gregory Robinson, who recently received a Partnership for Public Service Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medal for overseeing the successful launch of the James Webb telescope after years of delays and cost overruns.5 Another example: during the COVID-19 pandemic, a scientific agency with a large, distributed workforce was able to lift its organizational health from the bottom quartile to the second quartile in 18 months by focusing on communicating their “reimagined” mission against the backdrop of virtual and hybrid work. The effort included naming 30 frontline workers as “change champions” to communicate the reimagined mission, elevating and rewarding their contributions.

Ensure mission comes first in daily work. Although the overarching mission of a public-sector agency may impart meaning and purpose, workers can lose sight of how their day-to-day job duties can serve higher goals. Leaders who emphasize how every employee contributes to the mission could boost motivation and engagement across their organizations. Recall, for instance, the well-known story of President John F. Kennedy asking a NASA janitor what he was doing, and the janitor replied, “helping put a man on the moon.”6 That was 1962, but we’ve seen recent examples of how effective this can be. In one state agency, helping employees appreciate how their individual roles served a higher purpose was a key factor in an award-winning effort to bolster fraud detection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prioritize continuous development. More than 40 percent of employees in McKinsey’s global survey who quit their jobs between April 2021 and April 2022 cited a lack of career development and advancement as a primary reason for leaving. Leading organizations in the private sector understand the importance of ensuring that development opportunities are embedded throughout the end-to-end employee journey. Government agencies could follow suit by offering tailored personal learning and growth trajectories to upskill employees and cultivate a culture of inclusion and belonging. During the early stages of the pandemic, several government agencies took advantage of the disruption to in-person work to make more virtual, asynchronous training and development opportunities available to employees, particularly around digital and technology upskilling.

Build a comprehensive people analytics function. To accelerate hiring and weed out potential bias, government agencies could integrate data and analytics into their HR processes and decision making. A performance management system that uses simple reporting metrics with clear ties to organizational mission and constituent impact could help ensure that workforce initiatives are delivering on key goals, such as increasing applications per opening, reducing time to hire and fill positions, boosting retention and engagement, and improving workforce development. One federal agency created a central workforce planning function to forecast anticipated skills gaps in departments (for example, specialized expertise and additional capacity) due to strategy needs and impending retirements. These insights gave the departments the opportunity to get ahead of potential hiring challenges.

When critical public-sector jobs go unfilled, the impact on American life can be palpable. As things stand now, public-sector organizations are falling behind the private sector in the nationwide race for talent. But this doesn’t have to be the case: the public sector could build on its value proposition of meaningful work, solid compensation, and increased flexibility where possible to attract, develop, and retain mission-critical talent now and in the years ahead to reach and maintain peak performance for the American people.

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