Connecting state and local government leaders
A contest asked young workers to mock up job ads that would convince their peers to work in government technology. Here’s what public officials can learn from those ideas.
In the war for talent, the public sector is often at a disadvantage. It struggles to compete with the private sector’s high salaries, promises of rapid career advancement and established brands. Government is especially burdened when it comes to recruiting candidates from Generation Z, or those born between 1997 and 2012. The generation of so-called digital natives has little motivation to work in government, particularly government tech.
“The government workforce is facing a major transition in the next five years,” said Emily Bolton, vice president of the Volcker Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the public sector workforce. And as government services increasingly go digital, “there's this real need to attract a new generation of digital natives into government for [it] to deliver on the services promised to the American people.”
Attracting and retaining young tech talent is still possible for the public sector, but not without a marketing makeover, according to a new study from the Volcker Alliance. It is based on results from a marketing contest hosted by the nonprofit, in which Gen Zers created job ads that would encourage their peers to apply to federal tech positions.
Results indicated that ads targeting Gen Z should include emotive messaging focused on social impact, engaging visual content and be promoted on appropriate social media platforms—insights Bolton said are helpful for all government recruiters.
The winning submission told candidates applying for tech jobs with the U.S. Department of Transportation that their work could help prevent human trafficking. Set against a dark background, the names of five young trafficking victims remind viewers that “a victim could be anywhere. Be anyone.” It then prompts tech workers like engineers, software developers and cybersecurity specialists to be part of the solution.
The ad was effective, Bolton said, because it “spoke to a wide variety of ways an individual can have an impact in government that a lot of people don’t think of when they hear the name of an agency.”
To emphasize the do-good nature of state and local government jobs, agencies should incorporate visual content like video segments of employees in action to “bring the impacts … to life,” Bolton said. The second winning submission, an ad for the U.S. Energy Department, features imagery of pollution, wildfires and drought to bring attention to “some big problems” the country is facing. A transition to depictions of young people working on clean energy solutions like solar panels, however, asks applicants for their help. The study’s findings say that a visual representation of public sector work and showing how applicants can be involved in their communities is key to appealing to Gen Z, according to Bolton.
Social media also plays a big role in hiring managers’ ability to attract and retain Gen Zers, according to the study. But agencies should be aware that while Gen Z is active on a wide range of social media platforms, they expect different types of content on each platform. The study states that 63% of participants said they would likely click on a job ad posted to LinkedIn, but only 28% said they would like to see ads on the site. Agencies could, for instance, share the actual application on LinkedIn but use another platform like TikTok to “tease” the role and responsibilities of a job position, Bolton said.
Another way to attract and retain younger workers is by streamlining job descriptions, Bolton said. “Modern day job descriptions seem byzantine to Gen Z,” she said, adding that complex descriptions and corporate jargon can discourage potential hirees from even applying for a position.
“Part of the issue is too many requirements in the job description,” she said, which can be “intimidating and off putting” for applicants. In fact, the study found that while 63% of respondents said a federal technology job would be interesting, 52% of them indicated they did not believe they had the right skills. Agencies should clearly articulate which skills are mandatory for the job, and which ones are desired but not required, the report stated. Otherwise, a daunting list of requirements and experience could cause applicants to weed themselves out of the process.
Any flexible work arrangements, like a remote or hybrid schedule, should be highlighted, Bolton said. Study respondents said that the ability to work from home was important to them, but they did not think government jobs offered flexible work options. Remote and hybrid environments are “really an expectation of a generation of workers who entered the workforce during the pandemic,” she said.
Governments should also play up the benefits they offer to attract young workers, added Brian Wallace, director of strategic initiatives for the Georgia Municipal Association, or GMA, a nonprofit that assists municipal governments in the state.
Like many areas in the country, local agencies in Georgia are grappling with how to address the workforce shortage. This year, Georgia City Solutions, a 501(c)(3) created by GMA, conducted a pilot program in two Georgia cities, Brunswick and Douglas, to improve their workforce recruitment, Wallace said. The GCS pilot, funded by a $40,000 grant from the Volcker Alliance’s Talent Connection Grant Project, supported a needs assessment to identify gaps in the current workforce. The cities, for instance, held workshops that included representatives from various city departments to determine how recruitment and retention efforts could be improved.
Once the cities completed their needs assessment, they worked with the marketing firm Mopdog Creative Strategy to leverage GMA’s “Starts with Me!” marketing toolkit that includes guidance on how to design print or web advertisements, among other communications and branding tips.
Similar to the Volcker study, the toolkit recommends stressing recruitment campaign themes such as community, impact, and job satisfaction. The tool suggests powerful, accessible photos of city employees at work, coupled with text that emphasizes the impact of the job.
The City of Cedartown, Georgia, has used the “Starts With Me!” resources and has found success with it. One ad the city has used, for example, depicts the city’s Wastewater Department chief operator working with lab equipment and beckons readers to “discover how a career with your city provides valuable service to our community.” Another ad for a law enforcement position features a police officer on a motorcycle and asks, “You live here, your kids play here. You’ve built a home and family in our city. What an honor it would be to help keep those you love protected. The city of Cedartown is looking for a qualified candidate who is motivated and passionate about keeping our city safe. Ready to take on the challenge?”
“Cities have to think differently about how they recruit and the language they use to recruit,” Wallace said.
Editor's Note: This story was changed Dec. 4 to clarify the partners in the Brunswick and Douglas pilot.