Government talent — what’s coming and how to prepare

Government talent — what's coming and how to prepare

Faster retirement rates and competition from the private sector are creating a talent gap in government agencies.

We asked our experts James Hanson and Tanya Chowdhury to offer their perspectives on this trend. What stands out in this interview is the opportunity for agencies to lean into the meaningful work they do — and to make sure the recruitment and onboarding experience captures that vision for every potential employee.

Let’s start by letting our readers get to know you. How did you find your way to the public sector?

Hanson: My interest in government stems from my family. My mom worked for the State Department for 50 years, and my dad served in the Marine Corps — so in our house there was a sense of public service.

When I graduated from college, the first job I applied to was a government job, and I never heard back. Then I applied again a decade later for a government position, but I never heard back. That’s part of why I am so passionate about improving the government employee experience. My first job out of school was at Army Times Publishing Company. That only helped reinforce my passion for helping our military personnel and their families do their jobs.

What gets me excited every day about working for Adobe is the ability to help the public get the services they need at very critical moments in their lives.

Chowdhury: It’s funny because I have a similar experience. Both of my parents worked in the government. My mom is still an aerospace engineer for the Department of Defense, and my dad was a civil engineer for the State of California. The exposure to public service, plus my personal motivator to make a difference, naturally drew me to the government. Now, I have the pleasure of working with leading state, local, and federal civilian agencies to reach their people and attain impactful goals such as achieving digital equity.

The impact of one generation on the next is so important, but the federal workforce has experienced a steady decline in younger workers, with only 7% now under the age of 30 — indicating that we’re struggling to maintain the talent pipeline and hire people who can train up. How do you explain this trend, and what can we do to counter it?

Chowdhury: The critical challenge is that the government hasn’t necessarily modernized its outreach methods — so many candidates don’t know about open positions. The onus is put on the candidate to find an open role, but in the private sector many companies are reaching out more proactively to younger and more diverse talent.

The critical challenge is that the government hasn’t necessarily modernized its outreach methods.

Hanson: To Tanya’s point, government agencies haven’t always had the technology. Their HR, outreach, and communication systems were all legacy — they didn’t have the ability to target certain candidates in a digital environment. Plus, agencies traditionally drove their talent pipeline through in-person engagements, and those completely stopped during the pandemic.

Another challenge is leveraging data. Typically the government engages with the public and potential candidates using a batch-and-blast approach, where they have a pool of emails with no data about who the candidates are. They’re just sending out the same generic communication to everybody and hoping it will land.

Chowdhury: Equity in outreach has also been a challenge. The question now is, how do we ensure equitable access to all folks so that our government agency represents the people within our community and within our country?

Agencies can make a change by updating job descriptions to remove biases from the language and to include various segments and types of experience. 60% of minority graduates surveyed said they would not apply for a federal job. That reluctance can happen when the language doesn’t seem to apply to them. Agencies have a clear opportunity to open the door with an equitable recruitment experience.

A small step like updating job descriptions can have a big impact. What other actions can agencies take to attract new talent?

Chowdhury: One first step is to think through what a modern site experience can look like. You can even start with small sections. Take a look at the data you have now and start to tailor the content or the messaging based on the segments you’re trying to attract.

Hanson: Right — government agencies can do a better job of segmenting their audience based on interests, demographics, and needs — and then tailoring the messaging to engage those people.

One of the reasons the government often loses out on talent is that even when candidates apply, they don’t feel heard.

Chowdhury: And they can build stronger data capabilities. For example, data can help identify which channels your candidates are engaging on. You can then repurpose an email and send it out on social media or via SMS. You have to meet people where they are — at the right time with the right message.

One of the reasons the government often loses out on talent is that even when candidates apply, they don’t feel heard. It can take weeks or months to hear back from an agency, whereas a private sector company is giving updates in a week or less — which increases the likelihood that a candidate will take a private sector role and the government agency will lose out. If you’re able to automate communications, that takes the onus off the agency — and it keeps the candidate feeling appreciated.

A personalized desktop computer interface representing a positive government recruitment experience.

Engaging and responding to candidates effectively is so important for building trust. How else can agencies earn trust and interest?

Chowdhury: Building trust through an experience that’s modern and thoughtful goes a long way. Another way is to offer mission-driven and impact-focused work — which a lot of agencies have come to realize is important outside the benefits they have historically leaned on to attract new talent. We’re seeing an influx of people looking for mission-driven roles, which is the heart of what it means to work with the government.

We’re seeing an influx of people looking for mission-driven roles, which is the heart of what it means to work with the government.

Hanson: I think you hit the nail on the head. The government’s biggest recruitment tool is what it does to help people individually — their families, other taxpayers, and members of the public. You can see tangible outcomes and then discover that you can have a different impact from the private sector.

That’s what the government has to lean in on because, ultimately, competing with private sector salaries can be a hill too hard to climb. Today, the private sector offers similar benefits to the government — from health and family benefits to your own personal benefits. Agencies need to emphasize that the candidate will have an opportunity to have a real, meaningful impact.

Do government agencies think about creating meaningful employee experiences the same way they focus on public needs? How can it help them to focus on the employee experience?

Hanson: I think this is shifting. The pandemic had a lot to do with it. We realized that a thriving employee can drive better customer outcomes. Companies that have a good employee experience strategy are more likely to retain employees — and more than two times as likely to earn customer loyalty.

When you think about it like that, the employee becomes your customer. You ask how you can improve the entire employee journey, not just today, but from the beginning all the way to the end.

Companies that have a good employee experience strategy are five times more likely to retain employees — and two times more likely to deliver better customer experience and satisfaction.

Chowdhury: It takes the government almost three times as long to hire somebody as it takes the private sector. That’s well over 100 days. And then to onboard them is 98 days. And not only that — often people are left in the dark, as James mentioned. If we’re not able to communicate with candidates in a timely manner, then we’re not able to let them know how to finish going forward. Candidates are choosing between a modern website with a seamless process and an outdated website or a broken process that’s difficult to navigate with no visibility on the status of their candidacy.

Aside from the communication issue, the paper-based and manual processes that a new hire goes through are significant challenges. Our peers in government talk about the number of documents they had to sign manually every day, the binders of documents they went through, and the risk of losing important, sensitive information. If you’re making that experience difficult right from the beginning, it’s a clue into how the experience is potentially going to be for the next year and beyond.

Digital capabilities can absolutely impact employee satisfaction. How can they also impact an agency’s long-term success?

Chowdhury: If we know what candidates want out of their careers, we can set them up for long-term success. For example, if we’re able to sign, seal, and deliver in one digital document, we can pivot the onboarding journey based on an action somebody takes. We can ask early on, “What are the types of career skills you’re looking to grow?” and “Where do you see your career going?” That enables us to better communicate with the manager, “Your new hire wants to do X, Y, and Z over the course of the next six months to a year — how can we make sure their experience matches their goals?” That intentionality supports higher retention rates.

Also, if you reduce a 98-day onboarding process to even four to six weeks, you accelerate the support you’re getting and the employee’s opportunities for success.

A streamlined onboarding process with a personalized message appearing in a mobile device interface.

Hanson: I’ll give you an example. We’ve been able to help several service organizations with some critical challenges in their recruitment processes. One organization had content-heavy, aesthetically outdated recruiting websites with no ability to track response messages and limited outreach messages. We helped them efficiently tailor campaigns and target candidates through a personalized recruiting experience, and we got them to an end-of-year strength that has exceeded their recruitment quotas for years.

That’s an inspiring example. Would you say that government agencies are up to the challenge?

Hanson: I would say resoundingly yes. We know there are challenges, but they recognize that the work that they’re doing is incredibly meaningful, and they really do value their employees — that’s something we hear often from agencies. It’s just a matter of being able to mobilize in a way that’s thoughtful and empowers the workforce.

Chowdhury: When Adobe talks about modernizing the recruitment experience, there are four pillars that we think about.

The first is to place the employee at the center of the experience. It’s moving from “What does a new employee need to complete on their first day?” to “What should an employee’s first day be like?” Focus on the experience more than a rigorous to-do list.

By rethinking even small portions of the journey, we move into the broader experience — and it starts becoming more orchestrated, connected, and relevant.

A second pillar is using technology to modernize systems that are causing delays. If we automate communications and digitize paper-based processes, it lets us refocus our time and effort on high-value work.

A third pillar is data, which can reveal critical audiences, help measure success, and help tailor communications or establish initiatives.

Lastly is dedicating a team to the employee experience. I know government agencies often have few resources, but the quickest way to get meaningful change can be to dedicate people who are committed to it.

The four pillars of modern recruitment: employee-centered, streamlined with technology, a strong data foundation, and a dedicated team.

Hanson: What the Department of Veterans Affairs has done to map their entire employee experience is incredible. They formed a coalition that conducted extensive user interviews — every role from doctors and nurses to food service, program analysts, claims processors, attorneys, and more — to understand which moments matter in a career at the VA. After 11,000 insights, they landed on five employee phases and 30 key moments that matter from recruitment all the way to retirement — and they are using that journey map to modernize the end-to-end employee experience.

Chowdhury: Agencies don’t need to boil the ocean to see meaningful change. They can start with a small, meaningful experience that’s bounded. That could be recruitment. Or it could be testing pieces of the onboarding experience. By starting to think about what a better experience looks like, we’re already implementing meaningful change. Then we take the learnings and apply them for a better path forward.

Thank you, James and Tanya, for your time today. It sounds like government agencies are well-positioned to nurture a thriving workforce by leaning into the personally meaningful nature of the work that they do. And that it doesn’t take a private-sector-sized budget to make smart use of data and modern methods of communication. When government organizations shift their outreach methods to meet potential candidates where they are and focus on improving their experiences, they’ll be able to re-invigorate their talent pipelines and sustain their mission-driven work for years to come.

Get tactical insights on improving your recruitment and onboarding processes. Read our guide Reimagine Recruitment for the Next Generation.