How state and local L&D professionals can create an environment for recruitment and retention.

According to the latest surveys, what is the number one concern of employees?

If you guessed skill development to help them grow their careers, then you’re correct.

“Skill development is a top priority for 83 percent of employees, and 88 percent have already taken steps to enhance what they can deliver at work,” writes Forbes contributor Mark C. PernaMillennials and Generation Z are especially concerned about their career development. If state and local governments want to attract and keep young people, then government agencies must promote development opportunities. Otherwise, as Perna warns, two out of three young employees will leave their employers in the next year. 

However, state and local governments have a strong advantage in attracting young people: They do meaningful work.

Making a difference while developing your skills

“State and local governments solve some of the most complex societal challenges, arguably making government work the most meaningful of all sectors. However, these jobs are hardly ever framed in such ways. This is a missed opportunity as Millennials and Generation Z look for more ‘stimulating and purpose driven’ work.” That’s from the Rock Solid article, “Reframing Public Sector Work for Emerging Generations.”

I’ve been a public servant for over 20 years. I began as an intern in a public defender’s office in Kentucky and then as an environmental law paralegal for the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. After graduating from George Washington University in 1997, I spent two years as a presidential management fellow in the U.S. federal government. 

I left the federal government in 1999 to pursue an MBA and then a Ph.D. I returned to Washington D.C. in 2008 to work in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

I have worked in a total of four federal agencies. I know I could make more money in the private sector, but I am proud of my work for the public. It was challenging and meaningful work.

I also benefited from many development opportunities in my government work. As a training specialist in the U.S. federal government, I worked on designing and implementing training, and coaching and mentoring programs to attract new employees. I often had to create learning and development programs with little or no money and with existing resources, which was a valuable experience. 

The key was to use the on-the-job experiences to enrich L&D activities. Over time, I learned many ways to build an environment for recruiting and retaining employees by focusing on ways to develop them. A significant part of my work was to convince the senior management about the value of professional development. Once I had senior management on board, I then worked with the communication department and human resources for their help in publicizing our development efforts to employees and recruits. The message is that our work is meaningful, and you will grow your skills while making a difference. 

In this article, I will explore specific types of programs that state and local government L&D departments can implement. Each program is designed to be low-cost, simple to implement and relatively simple to manage.


Mentoring programs are a great way to start your development marketing campaign and an excellent way for young employees to learn from the senior leaders’ own experiences. First, senior leaders love to share their successes. Second, mentoring is easy to set up. You need a few senior leader volunteers and mentees to start. Creating a speed mentoring event is a great way to introduce mentoring to your organization. Set aside an hour and have mentees in groups of two or three sit at tables. Then, the mentors pick a table and advise the participants. Have the mentees move to a new table every ten minutes. Speed mentoring will sell the need for a formal mentoring program.

Career coaching

Closely related to mentoring is coaching. I created a successful coaching program in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with an initial investment of $40,000 for coach training of 15 supervisors. You might already have accredited coaches in your organization, or you can train selected staff members for around $1,500 to $2,000 for each coaching candidate. The benefit of coaching is to help employees develop a vision for their future development. 

Individual development plans

Another easy-to-implement Millennial and Generation Z development program is having them create individual development plans.  An IDP can be as simple as a list of long-term and short-term career goals, with a list of desired training courses and developmental assignments. The real benefit of anIDP is the career conversations that the employees have with their supervisors, mentors and career coaches. 

Emerging leaders

Establishing a mentoring program, career coaching and IDPs are all good foundation-building opportunities for developing young employees. Another solid program is an emerging leadership training program. I managed the emerging leaders’ program at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a couple of years, where there was a huge emphasis on building personal leadership skills — skills such as personal productivity, emotional intelligence, communication, team member skills and courses that emphasized the personal development of new employees. The program was popular and well-received. A great no-cost skills development event we hosted was a series of brown-bag lunches where new employees discussed books and videos on emotional intelligence or working with authenticity. 

Senior leadership coaching (leadership legacy)

A final suggestion may sound counterintuitive because it focuses on the senior leaders, but  the secondary effects of creating a senior leadership coaching program can significantly benefit recruitment and retention efforts. A few years ago, I was tasked with revitalizing the senior leadership coaching program. I reinvented the program by having the senior leadership consider their leadership brand and the legacy they will have when they leave the organization. Many senior leaders rededicated themselves to mentoring and coaching to build their leadership legacy. Through this initiative, Millennials and Generation Z employees were able to observe how the organization had development built into all levels. Building a coaching culture also met the needs of the young employees, and the word of mouth helped attract more young employees.

The recruitment and retention crisis for state and local governments

Author Kate Coil notes in her April 2023 Tennessee Town & City article, “Negative perceptions, divisions leading younger generations from careers in municipal government,” that a recent survey by the Mission Square Institute found that “38 percent of state and local government employees who were retirement eligible had accelerated their retirement date and a full 52 percent of local and state employees were considering leaving their position – either retiring or moving into the private sector – due to factors like burnout and low pay. Retirees are not being replaced by new workers, as applications for state and local government jobs dropped by an alarming 32 percent between fiscal years 2019 and 2021,” the survey stated: ‘This is also visible in opening rates: The hires-per-job opening ratio for state and local government (excluding education) is lower than for all other private sector industries.’”

Something must be done to reverse the trend of younger people foregoing state and local government employment. Millennials and Generation Z are seeking purpose and development at work. State and local governments serve vital societal purposes that offer many skills development opportunities. Luckily, L&D departments can play a vital role in encouraging young people to seek state and local government jobs by creating and marketing their agencies’ mentoring, coaching and emerging leadership programs.

Author: Bill Brantley