Jan 14 2008

Courting Millennials

With retirements on the rise, it's time to adapt your workplace to appeal to young entry-level IT workers.

With retirements on the rise, it’s time to adapt your workplace to appeal to young entry-level IT workers.

Preparations for the Missouri Information Technology Services Division’s upcoming career fair are under way. Flowering dogwoods — the state tree — have been planted, the Missouri flag has been hoisted and information kiosks touting the perks of living and working in the Show-Me State are almost ready.

But you won’t find the fair at any local universities or colleges where the department usually recruits. In fact, you won’t find it anywhere in the real world, because it takes place in Second Life, the popular Internet-based virtual world created by its residents, who interact through avatars. While private-sector firms such as Microsoft and Coca-Cola have already tapped into Second Life in their search for new talent, Missouri is the first state to do so.

The effort is one of several initiatives designed to attract the Millennial generation — those born after 1979 — to the state’s IT workforce. Across the country, government agencies are rethinking their recruiting and hiring practices in hopes of appealing to a younger generation. And experts say it’s about time. State IT departments expect to lose nearly 30 percent of their workers to retirement over the next five years, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). At the same time, state IT departments report a dwindling pool of applicants, making the need to recruit fresh talent critical in order to meet future strategic goals.

“You’ve got to go where they live, and they live online,” says Paul Wright, a recruiter and IT director for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Wright greets visitors to the ITSD Second Life site through his avatar Jedadiah Juran. “We saw Fortune 100 organizations doing this and thought it could work for us. In the past three weeks, we’ve had 35 to 40 visitors and some definite interest. Some folks are IT professionals already with a few years of experience, so we’re hopeful.”

Paul Wright uses an avatar on Missouri’s Second Life 3-D site to recruit young IT talent.

Prime the Pipeline

Part of the problem is that fewer college students are choosing to pursue technology degrees, according to Dan Ross, Missouri’s CIO. His department is now appealing to kids in high school and middle school, conducting classroom presentations and meeting with school counselors to educate them on what IT careers have to offer and what skills are needed.

“We believe that by college it’s too late to capture the attention of these kids,” he says. One way to do that is to change the image of tech workers as “nerdy white males with pocket protectors.” To that end, the department is producing a series of videos, aimed at younger students, that portray IT careers as interesting and cool. One of them features a highway patrol chase.

“You can provide the wireless information that helps the trooper catch the bad guy,” Ross says. “We’re showing them how you can use IT skills and talents to deliver services that people need, like helping a special-needs child or catching a bad guy.”

Unlike their more cynical predecessors, Generation X — those born between 1964 and 1979 — the Millennials have an idealistic streak that public-sector employers need to tap into, according to Neil Howe, a consultant and generations expert who has written extensively on the Millennial generation. His most recent book is Millennials and the Pop Culture.

The Millennials want to have fun, but they are looking for meaning in their lives, he says. They’ve witnessed Sept. 11 and the collapse of Enron and watched their parents toil to make ends meet. They want something different for themselves.

They want “long-term career opportunities within a stable organization,” he explains. “They like challenges, but they want balance in their lives. They like benefits. They are very close to their parents, and they are telling them that these things are important.”

For Paul Harmon, 24, staying close to family was a key reason for choosing a job with Michigan’s Department of Information Technology (DIT).

“I have a deep IT background, so I interviewed with the Ciscos and the Microsofts, but I was looking to be closer to home,” Harmon says. Another factor in his decision was Michigan’s speedy hiring process, compared with the larger private-sector firms.

“They have a larger pool to choose from, so you’d go to these interviews and there would be six to 10 applicants in the lobby with you. The state got back to me fast. I was only unemployed for three to four weeks after I graduated.”

Emphasize Opportunity

More students are choosing public-sector jobs, and that bodes well for government IT agencies. According to a 2006 survey of more than 37,000 undergraduates by Universum Communications, three of the top five companies listed as ideal employers were government agencies: The U.S. Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. They ranked just below Walt Disney and Google.

But according to the NASCIO survey, titled State IT Workforce: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?, most states lack initiatives in place to tap into this growing labor pool.

Many government agencies are “doing everything they can to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” says Howe, pointing to the bureaucracy involved in making hiring decisions, the general tech “unfriendliness” of many personnel departments and a reluctance to position the work they do in an idealistic light.

“For the past twenty or thirty years, public agencies have almost tried to hide their public mission. Because of the skepticism and cynicism of baby boomers and Gen Xers, they focused on the compensation and career aspects, but it’s time to be bolder and more idealistic.”

The Millennials are also more self-reliant and actively seek challenges and opportunities, making it important to keep them engaged, according to Eric Swanson, director of the Center for Geographic Information in Michigan’s Department of Information Technology. Swanson manages more than a dozen Millennial workers. He says that government must create “an environment of opportunity and innovation” in order to retain younger workers.

“These folks aren’t interested in watching the lights flicker,” he says. “They are interested in challenge and opportunity, one after another. We have to look at shorter-term plans. I’m looking at 18-month to two-year parameters, when before, our given technology could hold for five to eight years. The dynamics are changing so quickly, and these folks are researching that on their own. They’re not waiting for people to say, We want you to do this.”

Tanesha Hixson, 24, a Michigan DIT employee who helps universities and local communities develop Web sites, says she was surprised by the diversity of her projects and the opportunities to grow — so much so that she is rethinking her plan to stay a couple of years, then move into the private sector.

“Initially, I took this job for the stability and benefits,” she says. “I thought of working here for a few years to get the experience and then [moving] on to the private sector, but that is changing.”

While a depressed economy has hindered Michigan’s recruitment and retention efforts, a booming one poses different challenges for Washington state’s public agencies.

With Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and other companies scouting for top IT talent, state agencies are having a tough time competing, according to Gary Robinson, CIO of the state of Washington. To aid its recruiting efforts, the state adopted a private-sector approach recently and hired an executive search firm in Seattle to fill certain high-level jobs.

“There has been a lot of private-sector growth, and we’re looking for the same candidates,” he says. One way of appealing to younger candidates is “pointing out the array of opportunities and challenges the public sector can offer. They could work in any area they have a personal interest in — natural resources, policy work, etc.”

Success depends on whether public agencies can learn what makes younger workers tick and then approach them on that level, according to Howe.

“I once talked to the National Forest Service two years ago, and they wondered how to reach out to young people,” he recalls. “They advertised for jobs cleaning trails part time but were disappointed by a lack of enthusiasm among applicants. I told them they could get better results with less money. Pay by the project — not by the hour — and rebuild this as a huge ecological reconstruction project and offer a certificate that they can put on their résumés, and contact the parents and counselors. Tell them it’s helping them build their careers and clean up America.”

The plan worked, according to Howe, who says other public agencies should take note. “Public employment — a perfect opportunity missed.”

A Helping Hand

The New Generation Group of the Michigan Department of Information Technology aims to keep younger employees challenged and feeling connected. Shelly Budd, an IT analyst who manages the group, says the program came about because younger workers weren’t getting the attention they needed. She brings participants around to all the IT divisions and invites top-level executives to give presentations explaining their departments’ work.

Marketing a Job to the Younger Generation

While there will be tremendous competition for Millennials, the public sector is positioned to offer many of the things they value most. Here are a few things generations expert Neil Howe says you should know about them:

  • Millennials are more risk-averse when it comes to their careers. They want variety, but they also want long-term career growth within a stable organization.
  • They seek a work/life balance. They’ve seen their parents working three jobs with no pension, so good benefits are important to them.
  • They are closer to their parents than any generation since World War II, and parents are putting great emphasis on benefits, retirement, health care and stability.
  • Teamwork is very important to Millennials, and they have strong peer bonds.
  • Millennials want a lot of communication between supervisors and fellow co-workers, as well as constant feedback.
  • They are more idealistic and want to contribute to society.
  • Millennials want to be engaged and challenged, not stuck alone in cubicles doing something perceived to be of little importance.

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