Solving recruitment and retention challenges in the public sector

businessman looking away while listening in meeting

March 27, 2024By Jessica Dunyon

Every spring, members of the National Association of State Comptrollers gather with industry experts and partners for leadership training, continuing education, and roundtable discussions geared towards meeting the complex challenges faced by state government.

I joined Dr. Kathleen Baxter, State Comptroller for the State of Alabama, and Angela C. Thomas, State Controller for the State of Wisconsin, for a panel discussion on one of the biggest challenges impacting the sustainability and effectiveness of government operations today: recruiting and retention. 

The current state: A call for urgency

Over the next decade, about one third of the public sector workforce will be eligible for retirement. With hundreds of thousands of open jobs in state and local government and more than 50%* of employees citing non-competitive compensation as a reason for leaving public sector employment, the urgency for actionable recruitment and retention strategies has never been clearer. However, a significant generational shift in today's workforce directly challenges the traditional value proposition offered by public sector employment. Today's graduates with degrees in finance and technical fields overwhelmingly choose private sector employment over careers in public service as the work aligns better with their priorities: flexibility, well-being, purpose, and individualism far beyond the conventional allure of benefits and job security.

4 people seated at a table on a stage having a panel discussion in front of an audience at a conference. 

Let them wear blue jeans

Success depends on realigning organizational culture to meet the demands of today's workforce. Retention is no longer just a metric for improvement, it is the foundation upon which the future of public service must be built. By fostering a culture emphasizing flexible work arrangements, upskilling opportunities, nontraditional benefits, and a genuine commitment to employee well-being, it is possible to create an environment where public service careers are not just viable but desirable.

“Authenticity goes a long way,” Thomas said, noting the importance of showing up as a leader and mentor in the workplace.

“I’ve discovered you can get a whole lot more out of people if you let them wear blue jeans,” Baxter said, the audience laughing and nodding in agreement.

Never leave the candy dish empty

It is not enough to enhance compensation packages and update recruiting practices. Understanding and addressing the unique needs and expectations of individual employees is crucial to recruiting and retention. Recognizing people first as individuals fosters overall inclusivity and creates opportunities for meaningful impact at work.

Baxter successfully negotiated with the state legislature for higher starting salaries for key positions in her office and rewrote job descriptions to redefine skills requirements to fill open roles with in-house talent.

“We streamlined a 6-page application to a single page to encourage people to apply,” Baxter said.

Thomas makes an intentional effort to create a more inviting physical office space with holiday décor, and provokes fun, interoffice collaboration by hanging maps for employees to pin vacation or hometown locations to discover commonalities outside of work.

“Never leave the candy dish empty,” Thomas said. “Employees notice the little things, and it makes a difference.”

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Time for action: Join the movement

Rebranding the public sector back into the preferred workplace for  is not a solo endeavor—it is a collective mission calling for insights, creativity, and dedication from all of us in the industry. There is a significant opportunity to redefine what public service means for future generations. Whether you are a current government employee, a potential candidate considering the leap into public service, or an industry partner, your voice and action are pivotal.

How can you help? Start by sharing your insights and experiences. Engage with your peers in discussions about the necessary changes, implementation strategies, and lessons learned. How you can serve as a catalyst for change, embodying the principles of flexibility, innovation, and inclusiveness in your actions and decisions? 

About NASC

The National Association of State Comptrollers is part of NASACT and works to enhance the effectiveness of state comptrollers and to improve financial management in state government through cooperation, information sharing, education and advocacy of the issues affecting government finance. 

*SOURCE: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, MissionSquare Research

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