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Government talent sourcing strategy and transforming workforces

A recent workforce transformation roundtable focused on recruitment and talent sourcing strategy, strategic workforce planning and employee upskilling.

In brief

  • Refresh your organization’s brand in the community through external events, proactive discussions, and a motivating mission of public service.
  • A new era requires new skills and new responsibilities. Look among a wider pool of talent — while sharing the wisdom from those about to retire.
  • Keep equity and inclusion top of mind, as your most important goals and priorities can’t be fulfilled without a sense of belonging and understanding.

In a world still recovering from the fallout of the pandemic, governments today are forced to deliver evolving needs for citizens while confronting dramatic changes in ways of working enabled by emerging technologies. As most industries continue to feel the squeeze from a tight labor market, how do governments recruit and retain talent while competing with increasingly innovative private sector employers?

That was the motivating question behind the most recent EY Workforce Transformation Roundtable, hosted by EY People Advisory Services and featuring a panel of operations leaders from state government agencies across the US. The discussion surfaced notable lessons learned and key actions that other state leaders can use to compete in a difficult landscape, in three areas:

  1. Recruitment and talent sourcing strategy. How are leading public sector organizations competing for top talent while creating an experience that makes employees want to stay?
  2. Strategic workforce planning. How are organizations preparing for looming talent shifts while anticipating the skills, structures and roles they will need for the future?
  3. Employee upskilling. What knowledge, skills and capabilities will be critical for future employees to have and how are organizations investing in building these skill sets among their workforces?

Recent numbers highlight the hiring challenges not just within government but also more broadly. The US unemployment rate has been hovering around 3.6%, and the number of open jobs available totaled nearly 11 million at the end of January 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. In a global report across industries in 2022, the EY Work Reimagined Survey showed the impact of this imbalance: 68% of employers said turnover had increased, and 43% of employees said they were likely to leave their current employer in the next year (up from just 7% in the prior year’s survey). That figure climbed to 53% for Gen Z or millennials in the US and to 60% for those in the technology/hardware sector.


Here’s what our panel had to say about moving your organization forward.

Interviewing candidate for job in modern workplace

Chapter 1

Recruitment and talent sourcing strategy

Be present in the community with high-profile professionals who are doing important work.

While more specialized skill sets, such as in cybersecurity and digital enablement, are now more in demand, the public sector has the opportunity to capitalize on layoffs from the big tech players, which have traditionally been able to dominate the battle for this talent. Governments can differentiate themselves by demonstrating their purpose and mission — a spirit of community service that creates a tangible difference in the real world, for people of all demographics.

“It’s building your marketing brand of the organization,” a participating operations leader said. “We are connecting our internal and external stakeholders and future employees around our mission. We’ve been intentional toward aligning employees to our stated priorities through storytelling to show how work connects to priorities and serves people. Your work directly impacts each priority.”

Governments can take their priorities out into the community to create and maintain engagement before jobs are even posted, through high schools, colleges and veteran programs, for example. Don’t just send HR representatives out — who is doing the interesting and imperative work, and can they answer day-to-day questions from potential future applicants? Governments have a powerful message concerning health care equity, environmental protection, transit and development, among other topics.

“We want to build relationships and paint a picture to address questions like: who will I be working with? What projects do they work on?” one panelist shared. “We’ve done meet-and-greet events so people could hop online and ask questions first. You’re eliminating the mystery around your organization.”

Such efforts should be part of a broader discussion of what qualifications are really needed for certain jobs and how roles are defined, requiring open dialogue with your current employees. Questions for organizations to ponder may include: are you asking for skill sets and certain degrees to fill job descriptions that no longer reflect the reality of the work? Are you instead losing out on the creativity and diverse viewpoints that organizations thrive on, beyond what’s listed on a résumé?

From there, it’s worth scrutinizing what career paths you’re offering, and whether they appeal to a younger and more diverse workforce with different skills.

“A person may not stay in the same job for 20 years — we need to understand the dynamics of our workforce now,” a panelist said. “I haven’t been in one role for more than five years. We can’t be afraid that people will move but rather enable them to move within the organization. How can we build those career ladders to make sure we’re cultivating the talent we have?”

Another leader elaborated: “We’re looking to create a technical career path — a new level, a new title — without being management. Tech employees want to be technical. We’ve seen people shift to doing more hands-on thinking rather than management. We’re restructuring some of our jobs to appeal to more technical workers, and so they are motivated to stay.”

Business team discussing project strategy

Chapter 2

Strategic workforce planning

It’s vital to facilitate knowledge transfer when workers retire and always reassess the status quo.

Much has been written about the Great Resignation of employees quitting for new jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In state government, the “silver tsunami” of retirements has been a perennial concern that has only become more acute in recent years amid post-pandemic burnout. These workers have knowledge and lived experiences in their fields of work that can’t simply be handed over to the younger generation in a manual.

As organizations aim to facilitate knowledge transfer for outgoing or retiring employees, they can also use these retirements to celebrate the impact of workers and spotlight the employee experience. 

“We need to celebrate retirement and not think that colleagues are supposed to sneak out the door quietly,” a state government leader on the panel said. “We want to spotlight how we’ve won and had success in the past, then use that knowledge transfer to inform how we win in the future. We bring the retiree in with new recruits to have a conversation on equal terms and learn from one another.”

Through a different lens, retirements can be viewed as an opportunity to challenge the status quo and ask difficult questions about the role of government and what its priorities should be.

Effective succession planning requires clarity from the organization about its plans and expectations, which are particularly useful in employee evaluations.

“Plans are set from the top, but you should involve every employee to show how they are contributing,” one leader offered. “Employee evaluations are a way to emphasize that, and not just ‘where do I believe I was successful’ but having difficult conversations about where they struggled and needed more support. If this is a top priority for us, and we’re not meeting goals, then do we need another process or more tech? It’s not just to evaluate employees but ourselves.”

Another panelist offered: “People are very dedicated and committed to work, but we as managers are empowered to change what we’re working on. In my experience, governments can be stagnant — work happens without questioning value or ROI. As leaders, how we improve and reassess priorities is becoming more prominent in how we manage, and that will cascade into people.”

Businesswoman- ddressing group of young candidates

Chapter 3

Employee learning and development

Invest in upskilling, such as through online universities, and get more out of employee evaluations.

Planning for future roles will include both understanding the roles that will be needed, as well as the knowledge, skills and capabilities needed to fulfill them. Besides attracting new talent, one way organizations can help build the capabilities they will need for the future – around cyber, digital or other key areas – is through investment in robust employee upskilling programs.

Buy-in from top leadership proves crucial in making time for upskilling and prioritizing it, and employee surveys can help gauge the level of interest. Also note that learning and development, when handled well, should be a selling point with your workforce.

“We’ve actually kicked off a few programs in my organization that cross-train employees through the department with universities, so our employees are getting credentials and certifications,” one leader offered. “We’ve created an online university for nontechnical roles as well; we partner with vendors to create content related to each area. It’s not for more overtime, but it’s empowering them to do something they want to do, if they want to. People knock on my door and say, ‘This is a great opportunity.’ It’s making people understand how it connects to their longevity and growth.”

Employee evaluations can also serve as a useful way to track employee progress and growth and keep them engaged throughout the upskilling process. “We plan out learning and development as leaders for the entire year, then we encourage leadership to do the same with their teams,” a panelist said. “You have to ask: what does that look like? What coursework do you need? Is it internal or external? Then we connect the goals to the employee evaluation to strategically plan and benchmark our success.”

Throughout our panel discussion, belonging and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility were overarching themes necessary for success and for serving the public.

“Make sure that you create an environment of belonging,” one panelist emphasized. “It’s so important for uptake of change and career development — your people must feel comfortable. That helps build your organization’s brand as well.”

Equity and inclusion have strong roles to play in the growth opportunities provided to employees. If you have a lot of employees who work out in the field instead of in the office, how are you providing opportunities to them? No one should be left out just because they don’t have the same access. Are you being transparent about who is accepting into mentoring programs and who isn’t, and why? Transparency is crucial.


State and local governments face a historically challenging labor market, and at a time when burnout has been building, attracting and retaining that talent is critical for these organizations to meet emerging challenges. These organizations must double down on their motivating purpose to appeal to new talent, effectively plan for future workforce shifts, and invest in upskilling. Guided by diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, leaders can define a new narrative around public service while reconsidering opportunities and career tracks in the post-pandemic era.

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