Public service in the millennial generation

Something we’ve talked a lot about in our TechTables, and something we read a lot about in the news, is the tech talent gap in government. There is a general consensus that government has a hard time recruiting high-level tech experts. Well, as it turns out, this isn’t the only demographic that the federal (and state and local) governments have a hard time attracting. According to a new survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, millennials make up “just 6.6 percent of the federal workforce, down from 9.1 percent in 2010, a drop of more than 45,000 people.”1

Source: Partnership for Public Service via

Source: Partnership for Public Service via Rein (2015).

What’s most perplexing about this statistic is that millennials are, in fact, interested in service and contributing to their communities. In 2009, the National Conference on Citizenship ranked the demographic on top for volunteering, showing that 43% of millennials participate in community service.2 And in a 2011 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, “college students revealed that the ability to improve the community ranks almost as highly as a strong starting salary when searching for their first job.”3 Rather than exploring traditional forms of service and engagement though, millennials are choosing to serve in alternative ways. As a 2014 report from New America points out, “[m]illennials volunteer at a higher rate than other generations, engage in consumer activism, and are spearheading civic uses of social media.”4 Many are also “more likely to be social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems, even if only on a relatively small scale.”5

And it is this desire to make an impact, among other factors, that is pushing many millennials away from a career in government. A large majority of this age group, 47%, have decided that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges [our] country is facing.”6 Another big one is trust. The New America report cites “functioning and trust of the country’s democratic institutions” as one of the key obstacles for policymakers to address. And while this lack of trust can be seen across all age groups, it is especially prominent among millennials. The vast majority of millennials don’t trust ANY government institutions. A recent study conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found the following results when asking millennials about their trust levels:7

82% said they “sometimes” or “never” trust Congress

74% said they “sometimes” or “never” trust the federal government

63% said they “sometimes” or “never” trust the President

58% said they “sometimes” or “never” trust the Supreme Court

In essence, young Americans don’t trust their government and don’t see an opportunity to accomplish their goals, career and personal, on this path.

Gallup 2014 Survey on Confidence in Institutions. Note: This is for the general population, not just millennials via Cillizza.

Gallup 2014 Survey on Confidence in Institutions. Note: This is for the general population, not just millennials. Via Cillizza.

Another barrier we see is that the recruiting and application process is too complicated and slow for millennials. The government’s internship program, Pathways, has been known “to suffer from […] poor training of hiring staffs, widespread confusion over who is eligible, and a weak system for reviewing a deluge of applications.”8 This has resulted in small number of interns being hired and therefore an even smaller number who go on to serve full-time. While agencies are updating their systems to allow for online applications, a hiring factor important to young Americans, the applications themselves are still too long and the interview process too slow. Kimberly Holden, deputy associate director of Recruitment and Hiring with the Office of Personnel Management, points to a lack of communication between hiring managers and applicants as a major obstacle, saying “I know that we receive complaints from applicants on a daily basis about the status of their applications.”9 Miguel Aviles, chief learning officer of Young Government Leaders points to another factor, believing that it’s the physical clicks and actual time it takes to submit the application that tends to deter applicants. He explains, “[w]e hear from our members is just […] the long process [sic]. Not so much the responses, but how long the vacancy announcement is, all the clicks — it is exhausting for the millennial generation.”10

The government also suffers from a bit of a marketing problem. In many cases, agencies don’t know how to properly articulate and publicize exactly what they’re looking for and what benefits employees receive. For example, as Holden points out, the federal government does offer “flexibility for student loan repayment, and the Department of Education also has other programs in place for student loan forgiveness with years of service.”11 However, a quick glance at some of the level one paygrade jobs on the USA Jobs site ( shows no mention of these benefits. Holden also says that there is a “lack of awareness about opportunities in federal government among Millennials, who may not know that their skills are needed.”12 Through our work with both tech and public servants in the federal government, we have definitely found this to be the case. While tech workers in San Francisco may want to contribute the skills they have, they don’t think of government as a place to do this or, if they do, they don’t know how to find and take advantage of these opportunities. 

So what can we do to change all this? How is the government adapting? Well, for one, government recruiters are beginning to embrace social media. Many agencies are exploring using social media to post jobs13 while others are working to increase and improve their presence on social networks in order to gain the attention of millennials.14 Other strategies that have seen success are ones that involve“training opportunities, online applications, up-to-date websites and benefits that focus on a work-life balance.”15 Travis Moore, the founder of Tech Congress (which I’ll discuss more below), suggests that government can be more flexible and creative in their hiring practices. For example, rather than trying to hire millennials for full-time roles immediately, let’s give them a taste of government work through project-based roles, allowing young, smart Americans to focus on a single issue and see what they, and the government as a whole, can accomplish. For the millennial job-seekers who are worried about impact and mission, agencies need to publicly highlight their achievements, proving that their departments are in fact doing good work and achieving results. We hear countless tech companies talk about how their products are changing the world and they have the data to back it up. Government needs to do the same. They need to quantify what they are doing, using current and accurate data to show that they, too, are changing the world. And while the government can’t do much about its inability to offer comparable salaries to the private sector, studies shows that this is less important to millennials. What the government CAN do, though, is promote their benefits that make a difference. Highlight a focus on work-life balance, student loan repayment programs, and mentorship opportunities. The trust problem is a bit harder to overcome. At, we’re working to rebuild this trust by creating safe spaces for elected officials to collaborate with the tech community. And this can happen at other levels too. We should encourage elected officials to personally and directly reach out to millennials, show that they care about the same issues, and that they’re willing to be held accountable to these needs and requests.

And there are great organizations already doing work in this field. A few weeks ago we sat down with David Axelrod, who is a former adviser to President Obama and the founder of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. This organization was started in 2012 and is “designed to ignite in young people a passion for politics and public service.” IOP accomplishes this through three programs, “[a] visiting Fellows program where political officials, policymakers, journalists and others involved in politics and policy share their experiences with students and others over an academic quarter; an expanded set of policy and public interest internships; and a continuous series of public speakers discussing current events and political life.”16 Another great organization is Tech Congress, which “allows talented professionals working at the intersection of technology and public life the opportunity to gain first-­hand knowledge of federal policymaking and shape the future of tech policy through a one-year fellowship with Members of Congress and Congressional Committees.”17 As Moore explains, they strive to operate under the tech model, to be lean, iterate, and experiment and to be honest about what works and what doesn’t. By giving tech workers, many of whom are part of this millennial generation, the opportunity to learn about government work and see where they can contribute, Tech Congress is helping to show young Americans that they can make change in government.

These solutions may not be perfect, but they’re a good place to start. If we can begin tackling some of these problems, we may be able to reignite some millennial interest and engagement with government. We may see more turning out to vote, volunteering on campaigns, and yes, even applying for government jobs.

1 Rein, L. (2015, Aug. 24). Millennials working in government are at their lowest levels in five years, new report finds. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
2 Quoted in Fournier, R. (2013, Aug. 26). The Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington If They Hate It? The Atlantic. Retrieved from
3 Quoted in Fournier.
4 Gilman, H.R. and Stokes, E. (2014). The Civic and Political Participation of Millennials. New America. Retrieved from
5 Fournier.
6 Quoted in Fournier
7 Cillizza, C. (2015, Apr.30). Millennials don’t trust anyone. That’s a big deal. Washington Post. Retrieved from
8 Rein, L. (2014, Dec. 5). Millennials exit the federal workforce as government jobs lose their allure. Washington Post. Retrieved from
9 Whitaker, G. (2015, Oct. 7). How to recruit, retain and engage Millennials in the federal workforce. Federal News Radio. Retrieved from
10 Whitaker.
11 Whitaker.
12 Whitaker.
13 Rein (2014).
14 Whitaker.
15 Whitaker.
16 “About Us.” University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Retrieved from
17 Tech Congress. Retrieved from

Featured image via Rein (2015).