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Attracting and retaining a skilled workforce long term has been a challenge for a number of public sector organizations. Sometimes seen as having too much bureaucracy and lower-than-average salary offerings, many have been turned away from government work. Further complicating the matter, many agencies have not upgraded their recruitment strategies or systems in years. Job descriptions often lack precision, and the hiring process often requires multiple steps that can be difficult to navigate for first-time applicants and may be discouraging other interested applicants from applying. All in all, according to a recent survey of over 70 public sector leaders in 18 states across the U.S., roughly two-thirds find it difficult to hire and keep talent.

Because many of these weaknesses are often the result of budget limitations, it's easy to assume that there isn't much organizations can do to boost hiring and retention. But on the contrary, there are key ways that organizations in the public sector can differentiate themselves and appeal to applicants.

The public sector may not be able to afford providing the perks that a Fortune 500 company or a well-funded startup can offer, for example, but it does provide employees with a solid work-life balance, opportunity for growth and the chance to make a significant difference in their community by achieving the organization's mission. According to the "State of Human Capital Management in Government" report, published by HCMG, WBR Insights and Cornerstone OnDemand, roughly 86% of government organizations offer work/life programs to ensure their workers are happy at home and at work, 85% offer one-on-one coaching to promote on-the-job growth, 80% offer employee recognition programs, 77% offer mentorship programs and 74% even offer tech training. These programs and initiatives can go a long way in attracting and retaining talent—it's just a matter of unifying them via a culture of development, and conveying an organization's commitment to that culture.

Defining a Culture of Learning

An effective talent development culture requires more than just a handful of learning courses—rather, it calls for prioritizing lifelong learning, building growth opportunities into every role and empowering employees to take charge of their own careers. Government agencies can take the first step toward improving recruiting and retention by tailoring their learning programs to specific employee preferences, since everyone learns a little bit differently. Creating a culture of continuous learning will not only result in more effective development programs, but it will also help the public sector stand out as it aims to attract skilled workers.

“We're in competition with the private sector for talent," said Dr. Trish Holliday, Assistant Commissioner and Chief Learning Officer at the Tennessee State Government's Department of Human Resources. “So, we need to create a culture where people feel heard."

Holliday has experienced hiring challenges firsthand. Over the past several years, she has played a vital role in revamping the state of Tennessee's work culture. “Our governor wanted to invest in the workforce," Holliday said. “We asked ourselves, 'How can we help people be their best and invest in a career in government?' And the answer was by creating a talent development culture."

However, this transition didn't happen overnight. It took over five years for the state to build and implement a talent and development culture. The transition began when the HR department identified several crucial talent management practices and established a rewards system to recognize stand-out employees and help them develop plans for career progression. Then, HR introduced an integrated talent management system, which allowed state leadership to share resources and align on strategy across departments.

Understanding that employees are at different stages in their career, and many of them have different learning styles, the state now offers a plethora of learning methods, including microlearning, on-the-job experiences, mentorship, and coaching. By offering a diverse range of learning options, organizations give employees the opportunity to learn on their own terms. And an increasing number of organizations are benefitting from these offerings. In fact, 57% of public sector organizations are now prioritizing offering training to employees on new platforms and solutions as a benefit that they hope will lead to improved employee retention.

The Road to Adoption

The State of Tennessee's learning program was so successful because the HR department had clear goals in mind. “Developing a learning culture takes more than just saying 'let's create a learning culture,'" Holliday said.

Public sector HR must create a plan of action to guide them before they can establish effective L&D programs. Organizational decisions tend to be made at the top, so it's important to gain buy-in from leadership even before discussing learning content or strategy. According to a recent survey from Project Management Institute, one in four organizations have had projects fail due to a lack of executive support. But when executives are involved in a project from the beginning, it is more likely to come to fruition. “When they build it, they support it," Holliday said.

Once HR teams receive that buy-in, they can begin to develop an L&D program that will drive employee growth in all levels and teams across your organization. This means designing programs that provide new and emerging managers with the skills they need to be good leaders. For instance, someone who has never managed a team might take a course on fundamentals of management or emotional intelligence for leaders. They might even approach a more experienced manager to serve as their mentor.

Offering training to managers and supervisors will impact not only their own professional journey, but also that of their subordinates. Establishing a culture of learning will help managers set a positive example for their employees, and encourage junior employees to begin planning their own career development. And when employees feel empowered, their overall performance and commitment to their work also improves.

To keep up with the competition, public sector agencies and organizations must take a holistic approach to employee development. L&D programs are most effective when linked to other HR activities, such as hiring, onboarding and performance management. By offering employees the opportunity to do meaningful work and participate in a comprehensive talent development culture, government organizations will be able to attract and retain the workforce of the future.

Photo: Creative Commons