Kathryn May (The Ottawa Citizen):
Knowing the talent pool of the public service will need to be renewed to push forward its agenda, the Liberal government is trying to figure out how to attract more young people to a sector where the average age of a new hire is pushing 40.
The rising age of new recruits was flagged for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also the minister of youth, as an “area in need of increased attention.”
According to Privy Council Office briefing documents, the average age of new hires has hit 37, and few young people are being hired. Once hired, however, people stay in the public service until they retire at about age 60.
“Sustained efforts are needed to recruit young people and to attract highly skilled professionals from other sectors, especially those with the skill sets needed for the future work of the public service,” say the briefing documents.
The average age of entry into the public service has been creeping up, rather than decreasing, as more and more jobs require university degrees. A decade ago, the average age of a new hire was 36 — 35 for women and 36 for men.
The public service is an older workforce compared with the private sector. It emerged out of the restraints of the Conservative era smaller and slightly older. Today, it is largely middle-aged, with more than 60 per cent of the employees between 35 and 54, and the largest concentration huddled between 40 and 54.
Over the past five years, the number of bureaucrats under 35 decreased and those over 50 increased. The average age is now 45, and more than half have worked in the public service between five and 14 years.
It’s an issue Treasury Board President Scott Brison quickly seized upon when he made a pitch last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos to the millennial generation — those under 35 — to work in government.
In an interview, Brison signalled he is reviewing how to tackle the problem to give millennials the “chance to make a difference in the future of the country.
“The complexity of decisions today is greater than it has ever been in the history of government or democracy, and now more than ever at any point in our history we need bright, talented people in government,” he said.
“And we also have the most talented, most educated, and most globally connected generation. So it seems pretty obvious to me that we need to find ways to bring millennials into these key decision-making roles in government.”
The public service never has a problem attracting people, especially when the economy slows. The big challenges are getting people with the right skills and keeping them. Young people tend to see the public service as a slow, rules-bound hierarchy with little tolerance for risk or creativity. It has countered with campaigns over the years, including one branding itself as the “employer of a thousand opportunities.”
Andrew Graham, adjunct professor at Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies, said the government’s policies are often the barriers that limit the intake of young workers.
He said students are interested in public service jobs and the colleges and universities are churning out graduates in public management and administration programs in record numbers. In fact, the number of such programs grew from six to 27 over the past 12 years.
“Don’t say there isn’t an interest,” said Graham. “I know and I work with these kids and they want to work in government. There is absolutely no question they identify government as a good place to work. It is secure, they feel they make a difference, and it offers huge career opportunities because there are so many jobs.”
Graham said Conservative-era policies such as years of freezes on operating budgets starved recruitment to help reduce the size of government. He said many new hires would have cycled through a string of internships, co-op placements, contracts and casual and part-time jobs before landing a permanent position.
“They got their surpluses but also systematically hollowed out all recruitment. So if you hung in there with contracts, you could be 37 years old before you got a job,” said Graham.
“Short-term hiring is low risk, but the way the feds have stretched it for so long that they are making decisions about good performers around money rather than the risk of losing talent. “
Many argue the big mistake made during the Liberals massive downsizing in 1995 was a prolonged hiring freeze, which all but shut out a generation of employees. That “lost generation”, now between ages 45 and 54, never regained the foothold it should have had if hiring had continued.
Under the Tories, departments faced the operating budget freezes and the job cuts of the 2012 budget, but they could still hire. Hiring slowed, but departments still hired at much reduced numbers.
Now, the government appears poised to hire again as the last Tory operating freeze is lifted, and many expect the gap between attrition and hiring will narrow.
Most people who join the public service spend the rest of their careers there, so those joining in their mid-30s could remain on the job until they are pushing 70. The average retirement age now is 58, but those retirees came in at a younger age and typically spent 30 years in the public service.
Nearly half of those who retired in 2014 put in 30 years, compared with nearly 30 years ago when only 28 per cent retired with that much service.
There are also indications that the last of the baby boomers, now aged 51 to 70, might stay on longer before retiring. The boomer generation that shaped the public service for 50 years now accounts for about 36.4 per cent of the workforce.
Retirement rates are typically relatively stable — around three per cent a year. They increased slighting during the Conservatives’ downsizing and are projected to stay at those levels until 2018-19. Retirements could peak as boomers, who are now between 51 and 70 years old, hit the ages of 58 to 60, but there’s no expectation of mass exodus.
If there is, plenty of youth are interested in snapping up those vacancies.
Yvonne Collins, a career counsellor at Carleton University, said she is inundated with students who want to work in government. They aren’t choosy about the field or department. “They just want a government job, period.”
They are drawn by the diversity of work, the mobility, training opportunities, job security, pay and benefits, and many feel they have a better chance of balancing their work and home lives. She said Carleton’s co-op program with the government is always full and there are lineups for the government booths at on-campus job fairs and recruitment drives.
“All I can say is, at my end, I don’t see a disinterest. All I see is a huge interest.”
By the Numbers: Composition of the Public Service
37: average age of new hires
45: average age of public servants
50.4: average age of executives
50: percentage with 5 to 14 years experience
22: percentage with 15 to 25 years experience
58: average retirement age
36: percentage of baby boomers in public service workforce
21: percentage of millennials in the public service
257,000: number of employees in public service
87: percentage of employees who are permanent or indeterminate employees
13: percentage of employees who are term, casual and student employees
55: percentage of employees who are women
42: percentage of public servants working in National Capital Region