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Job seekers under 30 reject federal work, alarming lawmakers

The U.S. government's civilian workforce is mostly older, with many nearing or at retirement. The loss of skills is creating a need to attract young adults to federal work.

Less than 7% of the federal workforce is age 30 or under, a problem that got attention at a U.S. House hearing Wednesday. A remedy for attracting younger employees to federal work may be permanent telework or at least an increase in flexibility. But not all lawmakers are sold on telework. 

Nearly 30% of the government's employees are over 55, according to data presented at the House Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing on the "Future of Federal Work." The U.S. civilian workforce is about 2.1 million workers.

The workforce demographic numbers "present us with a staggering challenge," said U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. 

Retirements coupled with an inability to attract younger people to federal work have the government facing a skills gap in key occupations such as information security, Connolly said. 

Something that can help federal recruiting, Connolly said, is a good telework program and "greater workplace flexibility." 

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said the mention of the "future of federal workforce" has become "a code for talking about expanding telework" among federal employees. He said he had serious concerns about telework's impact on information security and the ability of remote workers to deliver good customer service. 

Remote work could solve hiring problems

Hice cited a March report from the Dept. of Defense's inspector general that found some teleworking personnel are using unauthorized video conferencing applications and personal equipment. 

"There was an increased risk of exposing sensitive DOD information," Hice said. "It's fair that we have these questions."

Michelle Amante, a vice president at the Partnership for Public Service, argued that the high turnover in the broader economy today can work to the government's federal work hiring advantage. The partnership is a nonprofit, nonpartisan government management advisory group. 

The federal government has an opportunity to capitalize on this moment because our government has purpose-driven work.
Michelle AmanteVice president, Partnership for Public Service

Voluntary quits are at a record high, according to U.S. Labor Dept. data. More than 34 million workers have quit their jobs so far this year, including a one-month record high in September of 4.4 million. 

Job seekers "want to feel a sense of belonging, and they want their work to have meaning," Amante said. "The federal government has an opportunity to capitalize on this moment because our government has purpose-driven work."

Amante argued that remote work can help the government solve its hiring problems. She cited government data that showed nearly 60% of the federal workforce reported teleworking every day since the pandemic. Previously it was at 3%.

Telework "should be a key tool for attracting a qualified, diverse workforce," she said.

One area where telework helps is military spouses, who represent a young, diverse and educated population but have a high unemployment rate, said Meredith Lozar, who works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Hiring our Heroes initiative. She is the executive director of its programs and events. 

Military spouses frequently move from one location to another, and, if they can work remotely, they may be able to take their jobs with them, she said.

"The COVID-19 pandemic refuted previous beliefs that remote employees were less productive," Lozar said. 

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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