3 Things Government Workplaces Get Right for Millennials

What comes to mind when Millennials and Gen Z picture working for the government? Is it the dreaded paper pushing of USPS or DMV? Or the action-packed, drama-filled days of Jack Bauer, CSI, or House of Cards? In NSHSS’s 2016 study, 57% of high school students expressed an interest in working for government agencies, especially the FBI (ranked #6 in the top 200 preferred employers) and the CIA (ranked #9). While it may come as a surprise to some, the government has distinct advantages to the private sector when it comes to creating a Millennial-friendly workplace.

Millennial Sherina Edwards is the youngest commissioner ever appointed on a five-year term on the Illinois Commerce Commission. She made an unusual transition: from a strong career path in consumer finance litigation to learning the ins and outs of Illinois’ energy regulation. We often hear of career leaps from public sector to private sector, but not as frequently the reverse. What attracted a six-figure-plus earning lawyer to a career in public service?

Edwards describes governmental agency work as sharing many of the qualities that attract Millennials to entrepreneurship: a basis in passion or mission, high responsibility roles, and possibility for accelerated growth. While for the government some of these may in fact be unintentional rather than by design, there are several key elements that draw a sharp contrast from working in the private sector:

Sink or Swim Training

Budget cuts have been the name of the game in the public sector…forever. Being short staffed lends to roles having greater scope and faster ramp-up time expectations. Edwards contrasts her first days of training at the law firm with her government role:

“The first training in the law firm was on how to get the most out of the training. Then we had training like that for the next thirty days. First day at the commission, I was in charge of multi-million dollar decisions and handed a manual to learn about the energies industry, which I knew nothing about. I attended seminars, read pages and pages of books, and met with people to teach myself everything about the energy industry.”

It may require more individual proactivity and learning through “old-school” training methods, but the expectation of ramp up time was much higher. Like an entrepreneur being thrown into the work, Edwards found the challenge exciting.

Meaningful Impact

The rewards offered and associated motivation for the work are sharply different between public and private sector work. As Edwards puts it:

“At my law firm, there was constant pressure of billable hours or the bottom line. Without those pressures, you are actually able to feel a significant sense of self-worth and impact, focused on public good. My decisions and my work affects every single citizen in the state of Illinois. I regulate energy, the rate, and the access to utilities. These are things that we cannot live without. The policies I enact are for the consumer, good or bad. I’m so glad my electricity is running through the lines today.” 

Knowing the clear connection between what she does and the impact it has on society is a key driver for Edwards. Instead, in the private sector work tasks and performance measures are often tied to a functional or profit goals. In the private sector, it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning behind the work.


Skyrocket Growth with Large Scope Roles

The budget cuts unintentionally may have created job mobility as well.

“You can get a lot of exposure working in the government. At the law firm, I felt like an admin the first few years, pushing paper. In the public sector, with the reduced staff, everyone is significant, every role is significant. And that can put you light years ahead of those working in the private sector. I have learned more in the last two years than I did in the full five years at the law firm.”

Edwards has brought Millennial mindset to her workplace as well, changing the way it’s always been done:

  • Driving More Collaboration and Innovation, Less Command and Control Mindset: Her management style is focused on an open group policy, where anyone can voice an idea and it is encouraged to think bigger than their role. As an example, Edwards asked an executive assistant to think bigger than her role. The employee highlighted a gap – the commission had an awareness problem where the people of Illinois didn’t know what the commission does. The employee suggested creating a one pager for customers. Edwards sent the created document to the whole organizations, recognized her, and ensured it was used. The employee said no one had ever done something like that, especially for an administrative role.
  • Ensuring Leadership Appreciates a Diversity Mindset: Edwards serves as a founding member of the Women’s Energy Summit and the Women’s Energy Network. “The American public sector shouldn’t be thought of as only old, white males. It’s very diverse today. America’s diverse. You might be worried that you can’t relate to them. You might think there may be less room for you, because there is mandatory room being created. But that’s not true, we are creating a larger sandbox, not replacing the existing sandbox.” Her message resonates throughout her team and she has continued to participate in creating a diverse culture at the Commission.

Edwards brings a more realistic view of public sector roles that strike a balance between the DMV and Jack Bauer. Work is impactful, challenging, high-growth, but may have lower compensation and the stereotype of high bureaucracy.

“If you are top talent, like from a law firm, the compensation gap may seem big at first. But the improvement in work-life balance, the greater skills you gain faster, the impact you can have earlier make a decisive difference.

Government can get a bad reputation for being ineffective and bureaucratic. I used to think of it as the post office or the DMV, bad attitude, moving one step every 30 minutes. Now that I’m in government, I realize what a stereotype that is! Over the last 10 years, I would say government has changed towards the progressive side. It’s not your grandma’s government.”

The private sector often struggles with creating more mission based organizations, where people feel ownership and ramp up quickly. Putting the heart back into work is difficult. While it may not be the first workplace that comes to mind, there may be things to reapply from public sector workplaces. What are some things you think the private sector can learn from public sector work culture?

If you would like to connect with Sherina, feel free to follow her@sherinaedwards or connect on LinkedIn.


Crystal Kadakia is a two-time TEDx speaker, author, and consultant on Millennials and the Modern Workplace. Her unique expertise is in driving the connection between Millennial behavior and the evolution of the digital, modern workplace. Her company, Invati Consulting, champions what she calls “talent driven organization design” to modernize the workplace through speaking, training, and consulting solutions. She is the author of Your Career: How to Make it Happen and the forthcoming book, The Millennial Myth: Transforming Misunderstanding into Workplace Breakthroughs. She is the creator of the acclaimed virtual, blended training on generations, Generation University™, and the Modern Culture Assessment™ that drives organizations to strategically shift culture for the needs of modern employees.