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Young professionals are shunning government jobs: Who wants to work for The Man?

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Texas State Capitol in Austin at dusk
Young workers are leaving the state government workforce at high rates.  Photo by Stuart Seeger/Wikipedia

Thousands of young Texans who work for state government are heading for the exits. Workers 16 to 29 years old left the state government workforce at a higher rate than any other age group in the 2013 budget year, according to a new report from the Texas State Auditor’s Office. State government is one of the largest employers in Austin.

Although employees under age 30 comprise 15 percent of the state government workforce, they accounted for 30 percent of the people who left state agencies during the budget year of October 2012 through September 2013. No other age group broke the 30 percent mark for employee departures.

The number is staggering, but the bleeding of Millennial or Generation Y workers in state government isn’t a new phenomenon. And the problem actually isn’t quite as bad as it has been before. According to the State Auditor’s Office, here are the numbers for the loss of 16- to 29-year-old workers — including those who quit or were fired — from 2008 through 2012:

  • 2012 — 31 percent
  • 2011 — 30 percent
  • 2010 — 33 percent
  • 2009 — 33 percent
  • 2008 — 40 percent

For each of those years, the percentage of young workers who bolted far exceeded that of any other age group.

Last year, nearly 8,000 young professionals exited the state government workforce; state agencies employed about 23,000 people in this age group in 2013. The top reasons cited for these departures were poor pay and benefits, as well as poor working conditions. “Generally, the lower an employee’s salary, the more likely the employee was to leave state employment,” the auditor’s report says.

In 2013, about one-fourth of full-time employees at state agencies earned less than $30,000 a year; the exit rate for those workers surpassed the rate for workers above that salary level. The average pay for a full-time state employee last year was $40,398.

Scott Span, an expert in organizational improvement, says Millennial workers — born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s — turn up their noses at tradition-bound government agencies, whose work environments are perceived as slow and outdated.

“This generation, more so than those in the past, has no patience or tolerance for hierarchy and bureaucracy,” Span says. “They don’t buy the ‘tenure’ or ‘chain of command’ approach. Millennials believe in open and honest communication and feedback in all directions. They believe results, not years of service or level in the organization, drive team success.”

Rachel Permuth is national director of business and industry research at food services provider and facilities manager Sodexo. She said the exodus of state government workers in Texas is part of a national trend, with Millennials snubbing jobs at local, state and federal government agencies everywhere.

According to Permuth, Millennials view government jobs as lacking a litany of coveted components: excitement, purpose, creativity, flexibility and autonomy.

“Government agencies need to think more like corporations in terms of branding themselves and marketing themselves differently to attract this new talent,” Permuth says. “Further, they need to ‘walk their talk.’ Millennials like attention in the form of mentorship, and they want to be able to show off their skills.”

Seth Hutchinson, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, attributes the loss of young employees in the state workforce to three factors:

  1. Low pay. Last fall, most state government employees received their first pay raise in five years (either 1 percent or $50 a month).
  2. Increased workloads. Although the number of employees at state agencies continues to decline, the population of Texas continues to rise. That means more Texans who depend on state services, but fewer workers to deliver them.
  3. Cuts in health care and retirement benefits.

“In the end, it’s all Texans who suffer, because we all depend on these services in one way or another,” Hutchinson says. “If the state can’t attract and retain quality staff, then the quality of services is going to suffer as well.”

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