Attracting and Retaining Public Sector Workers

What happens to law enforcement, education, and construction when suddenly there’s a shortage of public sector employees?

Attracting and Retaining Public Sector Workers

In today’s highly competitive job market, retaining and recruiting top talent has become a challenge at all levels. Whether you’re looking at the federal, state, or local government, the public sector wrestles with a monumental issue—the shortage of qualified professionals. 

The public sector talent shortage is a complex issue, posing a unique set of barriers for recruiting and retaining government employees. Due to the diminishing state of the workforce, it’s become abundantly clear that addressing this issue is crucial. 

The Talent Shortage in the Public Sector

This shortage lifts the curtain on a systematic issue that impacts the function of the government at its core. As vacancies stay high, public services decline, and the public feels the consequences. 

According to Fortune, for example, “In Kansas City, Missouri, a shortage of 911 operators doubled the average hold times for people calling in emergencies. In one Florida county, some school children frequently arrived late as a lack of bus drivers delayed routes. 

“In Arkansas, abused and neglected kids remained longer in foster care because of a caseworker shortage. In various cities and states, vacancies on road crews meant cracks and potholes took longer to fix than many motorists might like.” 

In short, public-sector vacancies can cause major issues, making it urgent to fill relevant and crucial positions. 

This current trend offers an opportunity for growth, but potential candidates are slipping away. According to McKinsey’s 2022 survey, approximately 45 percent of 13,000 people who were unsure if they would stay or leave their jobs within the next three to six months cited their career development as a reason for leaving. 

There isn’t just one factor that leaves job seekers longing for more: There’s a culmination of issues. Both global and public-sector surveys reveal that today’s workers want more than just a paycheck. They want their jobs to have meaning and purpose—that’s what public service is all about. 

Additionally, the Federal Reserve Board found the pandemic-era surge in retirements had a significant impact on the labor force participation rate. This ongoing retirement phenomenon is creating a void in institutional knowledge and experience, which can be challenging to fill. With Baby Boomers retiring, there’s “a major loss of institutional knowledge within many agencies.” Since Millennials currently make up just 27% of the public workforce, that makes it difficult to fill the gaps back in.   

The nature of government work is also evolving rapidly in response to technological advancements, practices in data-driven decision-making, and increasing demands for innovation. 

This means that traditional skill sets that have been prevalent in the public sector for decades no longer align with the requirements of modern public services. Because of this, government organizations are looking to hire younger professionals with newly acquired skill sets, such as data analysis, cybersecurity, and digital transformation. 

Also, as McKinsey & Company explained, what workers want is changing; the unique strengths of the public sector could appeal to these changes. If the public sector manages to make itself more appealing based on what workers are looking for, it has the potential to fulfill their emerging desires and increase the odds of recruiting them. 

What Do Employees Want?

The younger generations have different workplace values than their predecessors. Gone are the days of keeping your head down and working your way up the corporate ladder. Millennials and Gen Z emphasize personal values and seek careers that make a societal impact. 

While government agencies drag their feet in making decisions, the private sector continues to lure them with their displays of innovation and agility. The slower hiring pace of government agencies is simply less appealing when compared to the speed of their private competitors. Prospective employees are also frustrated with how the hiring process within the public sector can be labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The private sector often lures top talent away from their current public sector positions with the temptation of higher salaries and benefits packages. While public sector roles were once viewed and revered as a stable choice, the possibility of higher salaries in the private sector is proving difficult to resist. Particularly for those with student loan debt or financial responsibilities to their family. 

Since they have more freedom to change benefits, private companies are adapting to employees’ needs by offering things like student loan repayment, health and wellness perks, or specialty debt payoff plans.

How to Attract Top Talent

Effectively attracting and retaining public sector workers requires decision-makers to look at a clear picture of what workers want from them. Public sector workers, like their private sector counterparts, want things like flexible schedules and student loan repayment benefits.

According to GovPilot, “Government leadership should reconsider public sector recruiting and how innovation and modern technology can make the workplace more efficient, while making public service careers a more desirable option among young and middle-aged workers.” 

GovPilot also brought up the fact that the “top two reasons people apply for state and local government roles are job security (61%) and benefits packages (58%) across all age groups.” It went on, “Millennials also ranked career advancement and professional training high on the list of things that would attract them to apply for jobs.”

Recognizing and addressing expectations like these is pivotal in establishing a competitive edge in the quest for top talent. Here are a few consistent needs that employers should appeal to so they can hire more people:

Competitive Compensation

Fair and competitive salaries are fundamental to attracting and retaining top talent. US government organizations must continually assess their compensation packages to ensure they remain competitive with the private sector. 

However, most government leaders’ hands are tied when it comes to making any change in compensation levels. This is a disadvantage when inflation is high and private-sector employers are raising wages to partially offset that blow, as it makes recruitment more difficult.

Work-life Balance

A healthy work-life balance is a top priority for many employees, regardless of the industry they work in. Now that we’re mostly past the COVID-19 Pandemic, “The old employee engagement playbook is no longer enough to keep people.” Government agencies need to enhance their appeal using a varied approach to meet the diverse array of employee priorities. 

Leaders should connect with employees and allow time for reflection through dedicated feedback sessions. These allow leaders to figure out how best to support employees and help address potential talent shortages by getting feedback on how they can best attract possible candidates. 

Professional Growth

Government agencies should invest in training and development programs to help employees enhance their digital and technology skills so they can better advance their careers. Computer and software skills can help to improve customer service, communications, safety, human relations, and ethics through technology integration.

The other benefits of L&D programs include: 

  • A higher capacity for the adoption of new technologies
  • Improved ability to keep pace with industry changes
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Lower turnover
  • And a competitive edge

Offering opportunities for continuous learning not only attracts top talent but also ensures a highly skilled and adaptable workforce.

Work with Impact

Employees are often driven by a sense of purpose and the desire to make a tangible difference in their communities, and those who work in the public sector are no different. Government organizations can tap into this motivation by providing opportunities for them to engage in meaningful and impactful projects. Highlighting the societal impact of public sector work during the recruitment process can also be a powerful tool in attracting individuals who want to make a difference.

What Needs to Change?

To address the talent shortage, public sector organizations can adopt proactive strategies to attract the best candidates. They can address some of the following areas:


Implementing efficient and user-friendly recruitment processes by utilizing digital platforms for job postings and applications can streamline the hiring process and reduce onboarding time. Public-sector orgs can ensure that the recruitment process is responsive and transparent, providing candidates with timely feedback and updates.

Selling the mission

Government organizations can emphasize the impact of their work and highlight the unique opportunities to contribute to the greater good and make a lasting difference in their lives and the lives of others. Effective storytelling and communication are imperative in conveying the needed messages to hopeful candidates.

CPS HR Consulting also recommends that public sector companies improve their brand image to focus on things like diversity and transparency—younger employees are likely to value these. 


The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of remote and flexible work arrangements across industries. Government agencies can consider offering flexible work options, such as remote work and compressed workweeks, to appeal to a wider talent pool and geographic area. These arrangements can enhance work-life balance and make public sector roles more attractive.


Government organizations should regularly review and adjust compensation packages to remain competitive with the private sector. 

It’s important to address pay disparities, particularly in roles where public sector compensation lags significantly behind private sector benchmarks. According to calculations that the Federal Salary Council released, federal employees, on average, earned 22.47 percent less in 2021 than their counterparts in the private sector

Transparency in salary structures is essential to build trust with potential candidates. It makes the recruiting experience more positive overall and reduces the risk of that employee leaving later.

Retention Strategies 

While attracting top talent is essential, retaining them is equally important. High turnover rates are disruptive to government operations. Here are a few methods that public sector organizations can use to keep employees around: 

For starters, they can create clear pathways for career growth by providing training opportunities, mentorship programs, and access to development opportunities that expand an employee’s abilities and minimize skill gaps. Employees who see a future for themselves within the organization are more likely to stay and contribute to its success.

It’s also best to recognize and reward employees for their contributions. Government organizations can implement merit-based promotions and bonuses to motivate and retain high-performing staff. Employee recognition programs, such as “Employee of the Month” awards or other forms of acknowledgment that boost morale and job satisfaction.

It’s also critical to provide compensation that puts these companies in direct competition with the public sector. If government employees see that they can get paid more for the same duties elsewhere, then they’ll be more likely to leave.

Another option for increasing retention is to promote a healthy work-life balance by offering flexible schedules, telecommuting options, and family-friendly policies. 

Organizations can prioritize employee well-being by offering mental health support and wellness programs. A supportive work environment that values employees’ well-being fosters loyalty and commitment. A related best practice is to ensure that communication is open, employees feel heard, and that they’re comfortable sharing information.

Lastly, developing strong leadership within the organization can provide employees with guidance and mentorship. Effective leaders inspire and motivate their teams, creating a positive work environment that encourages retention.


The public sector talent gap is a multifaceted challenge that requires proactive and innovative solutions. By understanding employees’ desires and expectations, modernizing recruitment efforts, and implementing effective employee retention strategies, these organizations can attract and retain the top talent needed to address pressing issues that affect the public. 

As the public sector adapts to changing workforce dynamics, it has the potential to become the most appealing career choice for professionals eager to make a difference in their communities. 

Addressing the talent shortage isn’t just a necessity; it’s an investment in a brighter future for public service, ensuring that government organizations have the skilled and motivated workforce they need to tackle new challenges.

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