Beware and Prepare: The Government Workforce of the Future

A crisis is looming in governments across the nation and yet few are taking heed. The crisis is one that,Beware and Prepare: The Government Workforce of the Future Articles in hindsight, would have been easy to predict and relatively simple to address. However, few jurisdictions are taking the time, energy, or political risk to prepare for the storm that is about to hit. The predicted crisis results from changing worker beliefs, and wavering workplace values, coupled with striking demographics that will alter the face of the government workforce. The time is now for government agencies, small personalberater and large, rural and urban, to begin analyzing and preparing for the future. This article will discuss some of the most critical issues facing government workforce planners, offering strategies for addressing the issues and for adapting to the new beliefs within traditional civil service systems.

Changing Workplace Attitudes

More and more employees view their relationship differently than their counterparts did thirty years ago. Many describe themselves as either “renters” or “owners,” terms that create vivid distinctions in the permanency of the work relationship. Changed perspectives on the employment relationship have led to new expectations of what the employer is supposed to provide in terms of extrinsic and intrinsic benefits. Much has been written about these forces in the work environment. The following four trends have reshaped the employment contract and are forcing public sector employers to reexamine traditional employment practices:

Trend #1: Shorter Career Lifecycles

Traditional career management programs teach that the career lifecycle is a linear process. Typically workers begin their careers in the exploration phase, learning the skills necessary to be successful in the work world. Then they move to stage two where they are expected to be more productive as they become proficient at their trade or skill. Maintenance comes next, where workers either become stable in their work, more productive, or less productive. Finally, employees are expected to hit the final stage of their career, in their mid to late 50s, when the individual either chooses full-time or partial retirement.[i]

For government employers, this typical career path has been made even more certain by predictable pension programs and loyal workers. However, the current economy and an increase in independent thinking among younger workers challenges the linear career path premise.

In fact, some scholars[ii] have predicted that the typical 20-year career building cycle has morphed into a twenty-month skill building process. Likewise, workers are entering the workplace with technological skills that demand pay above the entry level. These forces are causing public sector employers to wake up to the fact that the employees being hired today will likely not be the same workers they will see retire in twenty or thirty years. In fact, the concept of “retirement” as we know it today may become extinct, replaced by self-driven investment opportunities that allow the worker to take their savings with them from employer to employer. The promise of retirement will no longer lure workers to the government sector.

As the average age of the workforce shifts upward, the average length of time an employee stays in a job keeps shrinking. The employee population is rapidly changing to a free agency, temporary work, consulting, and project workforce. By the year 2005, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that self-employment will be the largest work category.[iii]

Trend #2 – Increasing acceptance of technology

In 1995, only about 50 million people had Internet access. Today, the Internet reaches over 200 million people worldwide[iv]. Technology has changed the way we do business in terms of procedures and processes. More importantly, however, technology has changed the way we communicate in the workplace. Electronic mail, company Intranets, voice mail, personal digital assistance, and other devices have changed the way we exchange information and create bonds with co-workers. In the process, employers are beginning to realize that there are cultural costs associated with these benefits.

With the explosion of technology in the workplace have come new issues related to employee communication, trust, and the employment relationship. The Society for Human Resources Workplace Visions newsletter cites four interesting technological issues to watch, as they relate to the culture of the future workforce. [v] First, computer security is becoming more and more of a concern as organizations face the threat of computer viruses and hackers. Some organizations are reportedly installing fingerprint readers to their keyboards and other devices that will require fingerprints to be scanned and approved before an employee can access company files.[vi] These new measures will no doubt have an impact on trust levels in the traditional work environment.

Second, remote access is expanding the employees’ ability to work at home. As access continues to expand, organizations will be faced with new issues related to which employees will be eligible for the access and under which technology will the organization best allow remote access.

Third, communications systems are facilitating communication across country borders at levels we never imagined. AT&T is developing on a phone that will automatically translate calls from Japanese to English and vice versa. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “Universal translating systems may never be able to capture cultural differences, but they could enormously aid in international business transactions.”[vii] For public sector employers, the technology provides new options in communicating with populations who have traditionally been out of reach.

Finally, governments are forced to explore new technologies related to employee monitoring. Surveillance methods, including the monitoring of Internet and e-mail use has seen explosive growth, with 54.1 percent of private sector companies now monitoring employee Internet connections and 38.1 percent reviewing e-mail messages.[viii] And, in some cases, the ethical issues related to privacy in the workplace are being challenged in the courts.

It will be some time before these technological issues become clearly resolved. In the meantime, public human resource managers must stay abreast of issues and be aware of how their workforce is viewing these critical changes.

Trend #3 – Increased Demand for Learning at Work

According to a 1998 study by the American Society for Training and Development, 99% of workers surveyed wanted more training from their employers.[ix] The study was a strong message that pay and health benefits are not the only reason workers come to work. Before accepting a job, today’s workers are asking, “What will I learn in this job that will help me achieve my future goals?” The question proves a critical one for employees and is important to employers who are looking for a strategic advantage in hiring and retaining top talent.

The availability of training, whether through seminars, conferences, tuition reimbursement, or computer-delivered training modules, is a critical element in becoming an employer of choice. Coaching, mentoring, and career development programs have become standard fare in progressive organizations interested in retaining star performers. A 1999 study revealed that 81 percent of the Fortune top 100 companies to work for offered career counseling to their employees.[x] Public employers are offering to train employees on job skills that will help them better related to the communities they serve. For example, the City of Phoenix recently debuted a comprehensive language development program to assist English speaking employees to become more proficient in communicating with the region’s Spanish speakers. The program includes an immersion program in Hermosillo, Mexico for those employees who make the most progress.

Education is no longer provided solely by trade schools, colleges, and universities. Employers are beginning to recognize that workers value continuous learning and that the workplace, complete with its resources and connections to the community, provides an ideal venue to pursue such learning opportunities.

Trend #4 – Increased Focus on Lifestyle

An increased focus on work/life balance and lifestyle lead many organizations to look for new ways to satisfy employee needs. Public employers, in an effort to boost their competitive edge in the recruiting market, turn to new benefits to appeal to workers’ desire to better blend work and personal time. The most obvious trends are in the areas of telecommuting and alternative working hours. In a recent study of the best 100 companies to work for, 87 percent report that they offer some form of telecommuting.[xi] Over 89 percent offer compressed workweeks or alternative working schedules. These numbers have increased considerably in the past five years.[xii] Public employers are adjusting policies and traditional ways of working to accommodate these trends. In addition, new benefits have appeared on the scene to appeal to the diverse needs of government workers. Such benefits include pet insurance, domestic partner benefits, and adoption aid. And, as the employment market continues in its competitive mode, public employers are searching for more and more creative ways to attract and retain employees.