Analysis: with huge numbers due to retire in the coming years, the Irish civil service will require increased recruitment among younger generations

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By Noreen O'Connor and Alma McCarthy, NUI Galway

The outbreak of Covid-19 and its global impact is expected to become another generation-defining crisis for millennials (those born between 1983 and 2002) and Gen Z (those born since 2003). Currently 50% of the world's population is under the age of 30. The millennial generation represents the largest segment of the existing professional workforce, recently surpassing retiring boomers.

Many argue that younger generations will be more severely impacted by the pandemic in terms of education, job opportunities and social life. The level of uncertainty about whether there will be a swift economic bounce-back or whether the economy will take longer to recover is a key aspect impacting younger generation jobs and careers.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Helen Russell from the ESRI on gender bias within the civil service

The attractiveness of jobs and careers in the public and private sectors tend to align with economic prosperity. When the economy is doing well, private sector jobs tend to be more attractive, pay better and offer better employee conditions and experience of work. But when the economy is doing poorly, the security of the public sector makes it attractive.  The security and reliability of public sector employment that once might have seemed mundane or unattractive, may be more attractive now considering certain industries are on the brink of collapse and the economic uncertainty that lies ahead.

But are public and civil service organisations responding to the changing needs and expectations of the new generations and will they be attractive career options?  In October 2020, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published a review of the Irish Civil Service workforce. The proportion of the Civil Service workforce over the age of 54 in 2020 is 28% compared with 17% for the general Irish labour force. Most of the civil servants that are over the age of 55 are eligible to retire at the age of 60, which presents a considerable business risk to the delivery of services and business strategies over the next five to 10 years.

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From RTÉ One's Six One News, the number of Irish speakers in the Civil Service is to be increased

The significant upsurge in public sector retirement will require increased recruitment among younger generations. The review highlights that the proportion of under 35s is 16% for the Civil Service and 34% for the Irish labour force in general. The use of recruitment embargoes and moratoriums resulting from the last financial crisis caused a significant gap for a certain age cohort. However, over a decade on, we see that the proposition of younger workers in the civil service is considerably lower than the labour force average.

What are our younger generations looking for in a career and what do they think about a career in the public sector? Last year, 681 final year and Masters students in NUI Galway completed a survey on public sector career attractiveness. Only 9% of respondents believed that they were very informed about career options in the public sector. 81% of respondents said that they would be interested in finding out more about a career in the public sector. 37% found a career in the public sector attractive, 22% didn’t find it attractive and 41% answered that they didn’t know whether or not they saw a career in the public sector as attractive. 

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From RTÉ Archives, Anne Marie Smyth reports for RTÉ News in 2000 on the government's decentralisation scheme for the Civil Service

The 37% who would find a public sector career attractive cited such reasons as "stable job", "more security", "good pay and pension", "permanent, safe", "contributing to society". For the 22% that responded that a career was not attractive, reasons given included "poor salary", "red tape" and perceiving the job to be "boring". Some of the comments included: "The pay doesn't seem to match the work being done. Public sector jobs are important but they are not paid well", "Bad reputation and a lot of red tape", "Heard it can lead to laziness in your career", "Public sector careers aren’t usually spoken about in a positive way".

We asked students how important a number of factors were to them before they would accept their graduate job offer. The two most important factors were "salary" and "work-life balance" at 97%, followed closely by "career progression" at 96%. "Job stability" was high at 93% as were "competitive Benefits (pension, healthcare)" at 89%. "Meaningful /Purposeful work" was ranked important by 86% of respondents. 

What is encouraging about the study results is that there is a huge potential to reach out to students and actively promote public sector career choices. Students are eager to learn more about what jobs and career options are available to them in the public sector. 

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RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on Generation Z's views on work and careers 

While there are plenty of challenges in the public sector recruitment space such as budget constraints and collective bargaining, there are also lots of opportunities. With the largest youth population in history, there is an unprecedented opportunity to attract top talent now who will take an active role in shaping the future of our Public Service.

We may need to rethink our recruitment and retention strategies and understand how best to promote our organisations to attract, manage and interact with the younger generations in our workforce. For employers, these findings indicate that work and career expectations are high among the younger generation.  Public and civil service HR policy and practice needs to ensure it can respond to meet the expectations of the next generation if it is to compete in terms of employer brand. 

Noreen O'Connor is a PhD student at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics at NUI Galway and a former management consultant. Professor Alma McCarthy is Professor of Public Sector Management and Head of the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics at NUI Galway. She is a former Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ