Public sector needs to retune to attract the ‘brightest and the best’

Fewer than 1 in 5 see work in the public sector as attractive

Employment in the public sector and civil service has been an attractive option for many people in past years as it offers security, attractive pension provisions, variety and many roles offer flexibility.

These days, some public sector roles are considered to be well paid while others such as gardaí, nurses and teachers are calling for better pay. Much of the public sector human resource policy focus over the past decade has been on pay and pensions: demands from workers for increases in pay when times are good, and pay cuts and pension levies imposed by Government when times are bad.

It is natural, some would argue necessary, to have a cyclical link between public sector pay and the fortunes of the national economy. However, pay and job security are only one aspect of what makes careers attractive and younger generations are focusing on other aspects of the work experience in their career decision-making.

Many developed economies, including Ireland, are facing a significant wave of public sector retirement which will necessitate increased recruitment among our younger generations.


Many studies report that Gen Y and Gen Z workers are less attracted to pay, pensions and security when making career decisions

The attractiveness of public sector careers for millennial/Gen Y employees (those born between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s) and Gen Z (born after mid-1990s) is an issue that public sector organisations need to engage with and plan for seriously. Shortages in nurses, doctors, and primary and secondary teachers, for example, point to the need to examine the attractiveness of public sector careers and the employee experience they offer compared to the attractiveness of competing career options in sectors such as IT, fintech, medtech, and professional services in the private sector.

Many studies report that Gen Y and Gen Z workers are less attracted to pay, pensions and security when making career decisions. They prioritise other elements of the work experience – such as flexibility in how and where they work, interesting and meaningful work, healthy working environments focused on wellbeing, and opportunities for advancement and professional development.

To appeal to younger generation workers, many private sector and large multinational organisations offer good salary alongside other benefits like opportunities for travel, career advancement and wellbeing perks such as free gym facilities, physical and mental health programmes and free food.

In the “war for talent”, especially in sectors such as IT, professional and financial services, and fintech, organisations are investing substantially to compete for the best talent. They do this by proactively and strategically investing in their employee offering to compete for the best talent in an increasingly competitive landscape with full employment.

Singapore is a good example of a country that has a clear and unambiguous strategy to recruit and retain the brightest and best in its public and civil service and has done so for decades.

It pays its public sector employees well, often more than the private sector for key strategic roles. It recruits only the top performing students for its civil service graduate development programmes. Its current strategy is to ensure it can respond to changing generational preferences about work and competition for talent from the private sector.

A Science Foundation Ireland-funded research project that I am leading is investigating talent management practices in public funding agencies. The project will include international comparative data from Singapore, Finland and New Zealand's public sectors, providing useful international benchmarks of good practice.

Are Irish public sector organisations doing enough to ensure a strong and attractive employer brand to cater to the changing socio-cultural needs of the next generation?

Accenture recently surveyed more than 1,100 US voting age citizens about working in the public sector. Nearly half of those who are employed or have been employed in the public sector say it is an attractive place to work. But among those with no experience in government work, only 20 per cent said they would find work in the public sector attractive.

While we do not have a comparative study for Ireland, it is possible that similar trends might be reported here. This is especially the case given the discussion and focus in the media and elsewhere about poor pay and working conditions in some areas of the public sector, and a rise in emigration to other countries that offer better pay and better working conditions.

Public sector organisations need to take a longer term perspective on careers and talent attraction to compete with developments in the private sector

Many Irish public sector organisations need to review strategically their employer brand to ensure that they are an employer of choice for the brightest and best candidates in the market.

In an increasingly competitive labour market, public sector organisations need to take a longer term perspective on careers and talent attraction to compete with developments in the private sector.

A research study I conducted in the Irish civil service some years ago found that planning for the longer term human capital and talent needs was one of the key challenges reported by senior civil service managers. It is even more of an issue now when competition for talent and full employment is even more intense.

As citizens, we all benefit from having effective and efficient public services delivered by the most talented employees. Our policymakers must work to future-proof the attractiveness of public sector and civil service careers and work on the employer brand to attract and retain the best talent. To do this, they need to develop strategies that appeal to the changing needs and expectations of younger generation employees.

Alma McCarthy is professor of public sector management at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway.