Engagement and Retention of Millennials in the Public Sector


The issue of engaging and retaining millennials and Generation Z in the public sector’s workforce has attracted attention for the past few years. Scholars and experts believe that this group of employees pose specific challenges because they are harder to manage than older generations. Even in the media, the millennials are depicted as having special preferences, which make it difficult for them to work in organizations with outdated infrastructure. An article published in Transpedia News indicates that millennials are currently the single largest demographic in the labor force, which is estimated at 75% by 2020 (“Struggles the public sector face when hiring the next generation of public employees”, n.d.). Therefore, it means that this generation of workers will dominate the public sector and potentially demand massive changes in the running of the various organization. The public sector struggles to hire millennials and some authors have expressed that the root cause of such difficulties is the decade-old hiring policies.

Managers and leaders in the public sector must learn how to work with millennials. Their growing numbers in the workplace means that massive changes are needed to accommodate them. Even in the private sector, the retention of millennials is a challenge for human resource managers, meaning strategic approaches are needed. Greater attention to this issue is needed through data and statistics to explore the representation of millennials in the public sector. Other critical issues that need to be explored include the special needs of this group of workers and the best means of engaging and retaining them. For example, the millennials have been described as more freedom-oriented, techno-savvy, impatient, and ambitious (Gaikwad & Swaminathan, 2020). To retain people with these characteristics is a problem that will require empirical research to determine the best possible approaches. In the public sector, the personnel managers have to find means of driving performance while at the same time addressing the unique needs of the millennials.

Literature Review

In the United States and other western countries such as Canada, governments are facing a major shift in the demographic profiles of the public sector labor force. The shifts are in the form of the baby boomers, a generation comprising people born between 1946 and 1965, reaching the ages of 65 years. Therefore, it can be expected that there will be a wave of retirements over the next few decades, which leaves the government and the personnel managers in the public sector in need of new workers. The main challenge, as explained by Henstra and McGowan (2016), is finding ways of motivating and retaining the newer generation called the millennials. The primary question that needs to be addressed is what makes the millennials select public service as a career path. Most importantly, such issues as their expectations need to be addressed since the millennials have certain unique preferences. Therefore, the personnel managers in the public sector would be required to tailor job positions to meet the needs of the millennials.

As explained above, the millennials have ambitions and prefer more freedom, as well as higher preference and adoption of technology. Therefore, it remains a fact that retaining this group will be a challenge, and only through engaging them can the leaders and personnel management in the sector learn how to retain them. Whether in the public or private sector, scholars have established that managing millennials means embracing generational differences. As workers who value personal rewards, such scholars as Stewart et al. (2017) believe that organizations need to find the right mechanisms to engage the millennial employees to boost organizational outcomes. Additionally, the input from the younger workers is critical, especially in such situations as performance evaluation. The rationale expressed by Stewart et al. (2017) is that the employers need enhanced feedback and contributions from the workers to successfully undertake performance evaluation. In the context of the public sector, the same situation can apply because the performance of public entities is often closely monitored by multiple stakeholders. Therefore, the current literature illustrates that the performance, motivation, and retention of millennials depends on the level of employee engagement.

An overview of the representation of millennial workers in the US public sector reveals several issues that need to be addressed. According to Arrington and Dwyer (2018), a 2015 census approximated the total public service workers at 1,845,662 distributed across 350 occupations in 82 agencies. Additionally, the traditionalists comprised 1%, while baby boomers, generation Xers, and Millennials accounted for 49%, 39%, and 11% respectively (Arrington & Dwyer, 2018). The statistics do not reflect the fact that millennials are growing in abundance. The explanation given for this situation is that the plummeting economy has meant two generations are not retiring as predicted. The delayed retirement has caused cutbacks, loss of retirement savings, and layoffs. However, the most important effect is that the involvement of the millennial workers in managing public offices is limited as those institutions are occupied by older generations. The public sector may begin to be perceived as for the older people, which could be detrimental in attracting and retaining the millennials. A bigger problem is the fact that personnel managers in the public sector have to deal with four generations, which makes management even more difficult.

The subject of retaining and engaging millennial employees in the public sector has attracted inadequate scholarly attention. Therefore, theoretical frameworks developed through the employee retention and engagement research focusing on other sectors can be used to highlight what the government human resource managers would be expected to do. A research article by Jindal et al. (2017) explains that employee engagement can be used as a tool for talent retention among millennials. The rationale for this position is that employees who feel engaged tend to offer more commitment to their work, which results in greater quality of output. In the private sector, such efforts also yield a competitive advantage for the employer because top talent can drive corporate performance. Therefore, personnel managers in the public sector can use engagement in the same manner where the millennials can be made to feel part of the organization and commit their efforts towards improved performance. Competitive advantage may also be achieved for the employers in the public sector, especially where more than one agency hires from the same talent pool. Retention becomes a critical challenge and engagement can offer a solution.

The usefulness of employee engagement has to an employer has been extensively studied. In the case of millennials, many scholars agree that it is extremely difficult to achieve this goal due to the unique characteristics of this group of workers. According to Mayangdarastri and Khunsa (2020), millennials prefer that certain aspects of their careers be effectively communicated to them. For example, 91% of millennials have high expectations of their employers and value a rapid career progression that is communicated to them during the recruitment stage (Mayangdarastri & Khunsa, 2020). Regarding engagement, the goal of the personnel managers is to build trust, relationships, and support the satisfaction and wellbeing of the millennials.

Even though not expressly stated, it can be argued that this goal leads to retention because satisfied employees do not leave their jobs. The three main factors affecting organizational commitment are self-performance, retention, and job satisfaction. Therefore, a link between engagement and retention has been created, which again supports the position by Jindal et al. (2017) that engagement is a tool for retention. Millennials tend to prefer the fastest way to achieve their goals, which means that the packages offered need to be appealing enough to make them stay. Therefore, the idea of engagement and retention through career growth and development expressed by Mayangdarastri and Khunsa (2020) should offer personnel managers in the public sector an idea of what to offer millennials. The main question is how people progress their careers in the public sector.

Factors affecting millennial engagement in the public sector is an interesting subject that should give an overview of how human resource managers treat the younger generation of workers. An attempt to address this topic has been made by Raza et al. (2017) who finds that leadership supp0rt, rewards, recognition, and training and development as the key themes in millennial employee engagement. However, the study does not focus on the public sector in the United States but the findings can be generalized across all public sectors. Furthermore, training and development can be associated with the career growth and development discussed by Mayangdarastri and Khunsa (2020). The consistency in these themes indicates that the public sectors face almost similar challenges on the issue of engaging millennial employees in the workplace. Therefore, the current literature indicates that the human resource managers in the government offices need to find the appropriate mechanisms to offer millennials assurances of career progression.

The retention of millennials in the public sector can be affected by many factors as well. As explained by Piatak (2017), the workers in the public sector are more likely to switch to the private sector in times of economic turmoil. The turnover experienced can largely be attributed to the millennials since they are relatively disloyal to a single employer. Additionally, they prefer to work in environments where their growth can be assured. Additionally, the retention of the millennials may depend on the remuneration and rewards as outlined by Johnson and Ng (2016) who find that millennials are more likely to switch to the private sector if the compensation is more favorable. Therefore, even though the literature is limited on the subject of engagement and retention of millennial workers in the workplace, it can be acknowledged that personnel managers face a difficult task in this regard.


From the literature examined above, it has become clear that millennials are a difficult group of workers to manage. The key point to note is regarding their characteristics, which can be attributed to the difficulty in retaining them in the public sector. First, the fact that the millennials are ambitious means that will only take up jobs in the public sector if the jobs support their personal goals, including career progression. The literature review reveals that both retention and engagement of millennial workers are affected by the extent to which the jobs offer career growth. Piatak (2017) explains that since the public sector depends on government funds and donations, the latter being the case for nonprofit organizations, labor market conditions affect the ability of human resource managers in retaining employees. However, a solution proposed is that the recruitment and retention strategies should be tailored to suit the level of government and other conditions likely to be experienced.

However, it will still be difficult to keep them because certain conditions, especially when there are shortages of funds, could derail their ambitions. This explains why Johnson and Ng (2016) use the expression of money talks or millennials walk to illustrate how millennials feel about money and compensation. Therefore, it means that will not be an easy task for the government offices to retain them. Employee engagement has been described as a tool for the retention of millennials. However, the use of this literature in the context of the public sector has been under the assumption that millennials seek similar goals in the private and public sectors. Therefore, engagement can only work when other objectives are also addressed, including remuneration and the promise of career growth. Massive changes may be necessary for the government jobs, including investments in technology to accommodate the tech-savvy generation. Other solutions may include leadership support and training and development, as well as an assurance that bad economic times do not affect their goals and aspirations.


The topic of engagement and retention of millennial workers in the public sector has received inadequate scholarly attention. This is despite the fact that in the new few decades the older generation called baby boomers and which currently dominate the public sector will be retiring. Therefore, many of the positions will be left to be occupied by the millennials, a group of employees whose basic characteristics could make them incompatible with public jobs. The literature review has examined the retention and engagement of millennials in government offices. The main observation from the scant literature is that engagement can be used as a tool for retention. However, engagement works with the promise of other core goals, including career growth and progression. Engagement is a means of making the workers committed to their job, which in turn improves organizational outcomes. When commitment is achieved, it can be argued that retention will be easier.

However, the basic nature of the millennials makes it hard to engage and retain. For example, this generation comprises ambitious people who are hardly loyal to a single employer. Therefore, it means that they will keep switching jobs in pursuit of one that caters to their personal goals. It can be concluded that the personnel managers in the public sector will need to make the jobs attractive by aligning them to the goals and expectations of the millennials. Loyalty may be impossible to achieve, which means that without adequate rewards the workers will switch to the private sector. The fact that the government offices often depend on funding from the state means that there may not be adequate flexibility with the remuneration programs. Therefore, it will be extremely difficult to retain millennial workers in government jobs.


Arrington, G., & Dwyer, R. (2018). Can four generations create harmony within a public-sector environment? International Journal of Applied Management and Technology, 17(1), 1-21. Web.

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Henstra, D., & McGowan, R. (2016). Millennials and public service: An exploratory analysis of graduate student career motivations and expectations. Public Administration Quarterly, 40(3), 490-516. Web.

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Stewart, J., Oliver, E., Cravens, K., & Oishi, S. (2017). Managing millennials: Embracing generational differences. Business Horizons, 60, 45-54. Web.

Struggles the public sector face when hiring the next generation of public employees. (n.d.). Transpedia News. Web.

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