Mission Matters

What Draws Younger Workers to the Public Sector

attracting workers

A 2022 study found young public sector workers citing factors such as connection to an organization’s mission and inclusive workplace culture among the reasons they stay with their employer.

It turns out the elements of the work experience that make these employees want to stay are the same things that draw them to the public sector in the first place.

In a MissionSquare Research Institute survey of more than 100 local government fellowship applicants, respondents “overwhelmingly” agreed that meaningful work is their top priority, followed by workplace culture and compensation, according to a statement summarizing the findings. These would-be public servants also placed a high importance on an inclusive work environment, and personal recommendations are a key driver in deciding to apply for a government position.

The report, New Career Entrants to Public Service: Lessons for Employers from Fellowship Applicants, is based on a poll that gauged 102 Lead for America (LFA) fellowship candidates’ motivations toward public service, their impressions of the LFA fellowship application process and career aspirations.

Survey participants were asked to rank the importance of a variety of aspects of the work experience when deciding which jobs to pursue. “Meaningful work and mission alignment with the organization” topped the list for the fellowship applicants.

Next came “workplace culture,” encompassing factors such as work community, work-life balance and co-worker demographics, for example. The facet of workplace culture applicants considered most important was “a culture of intellectual engagement,” with 62% saying this was very important to them when deciding whether to apply for a public service role. In addition, 54% said that a workplace with a strong team dynamic was very important to them when sizing up public sector employers.

It Takes More Than Money

It’s no secret that the hiring process for government jobs can be slow-going, and these delays can sometimes lead quality candidates to remove themselves from the running for a given public sector job.

For example, one 2022 survey found 79% of nearly 300 public sector HR officials saying they were not finding enough applicants to fill open positions, with candidates citing a number of factors contributing to their frustration with the public sector hiring process.

“It took forever,” said one discouraged job seeker. “By the time someone reached out to me about a background check, I had been offered [and started training for] a position in the private sector.”

Another applicant lamented a complex and redundant application process.

“Getting transcripts, references and completing the application and questions was time-consuming and labor-intensive, as well as repetitive.”

This more recent MissionSquare Research Institute survey also asked applicants to evaluate their experience with hiring in the public sector. Timely hiring and straightforward applications still mattered to respondents, but other measures were more critical.  

For example, fellowship applicants rated transparency and communication in the hiring process as being the most important to them. More than 70% said that receiving accurate compensation ranges and optional benefits in job descriptions was most important to them. Another 65% said the same about application deadlines, selection days and notification windows being made clear to them.   

Speaking of compensation, pay and benefits still matter to younger workers, too. Compensation and benefits—wages, paid leave, health insurance, flexible hours, telework options, for instance—ranked third on the list of applicants’ priorities, just behind meaningful work and organizational culture.

“This means that state and local government leaders are wise to continue offering strong traditional benefits like healthcare and retirement, while also looking at non-traditional benefits like flexibility, student loan repayment and childcare,” said Lynne Ford, CEO and president of MissionSquare Retirement, in a statement.

“It’s always going to be difficult for governments to compete on salary, so benefits can help make up the difference to make a job appealing.”

Gerald Young, senior research analyst at MissionSquare Research Institute and the report’s author, called the findings “a treasure trove of insights” for community leaders looking to attract younger workers to public service careers.

“It’s clear that a strong workplace culture and solid benefits are magnets for younger workers. The research also reveals that public service recruitment efforts should emphasize the agency mission rather than job tasks, while also focusing on what younger job candidates value.”


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