How GovCon can better appeal to Generation Z

Photo illustration by Alvarez

Generation Z is a small part of today's workforce, but they are the future and we know precious little about them. Step one is listening to them.

For many years, the public sector and all those who do business with the federal government have focused on attracting and retaining millennials.

But just my two cents, millennials seem to be old news.

Millennials are more accommodating than their younger colleagues, Generation Z, and have more predictable expectations of their employer, like stability, career advancement, and above-average health benefits.

Gen Z remains an anomaly, mostly because we know so little about them. But this group will quickly outnumber millennials, making them a highly sought-after workforce.

They are our future. We are lagging behind tech giants like Apple, Google and Amazon when it comes to Gen Z recruitment and retention, which ultimately leaves a gaping talent hole for national security and IT modernization for the U.S. government.  

The generation born between 1997-2012, or Gen Z, currently accounts for about 12% of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But they will soon surpass millennials based on the number of births worldwide in this age pool.

While there is strength in numbers, Gen Z is also much more vocal about their expectations of their employer compared to millennials or Gen X. For the public sector, we can start to implement changes in our behaviors now to prepare for their arrival.

Here are my top four tips.

Create a successful intern program

Internships should be engaging and mutually beneficial. Put aside the mentality of ‘back in my day, we did coffee runs’ or ‘we had to earn our stripes.’ When I engage with my customers, I always ask them, “What outcomes do they hope to achieve by partnering with us?”

Ask your interns the same question. They will usually say they hope to gain real-world experience, use real technologies, and be able to bring their ideas to the table. Offer your interns an immersive experience where they are doing the work and gaining experience they can put on a resume.

As their employer, create an action plan to convert them to full-time employees. We are currently concluding CACI’s Summer Internship program that is predominately 70% experiential, 20% collaboration, and 10% formal training.

Our 325 interns attended enrichment seminars, earned accreditations and learned how to use the latest technologies including Agile at scale, artificial intelligence, Linux, cloud and more.

Practice reverse mentorship

Whether formal or informal, reverse mentoring is an effective way to engage with and listen to Gen Z’s voice. Most think of mentoring as a formal program in which someone experienced or higher in the company’s hierarchy mentors someone more junior.

Reverse mentoring flips it on its head, and the more junior employee mentors the senior employee and it takes some of the formality out of it often with the “mentee” asking the Gen Z “mentor” to educate them on digital technology and collaboration.

Gen Z is the most diverse generation in U.S. history. They are “digitally native,” having grown up with a smartphone welded to their palm, and we can learn quite a bit from them. They think differently, problem-solve differently, and collaborate differently.

They are unconstrained and confident in leveraging technology; to be successful, we must adopt a similar approach in our business leadership. It’s the future of work.

Engage Gen Z while they’re young

In the 1960s, every kid wanted to be an astronaut. The Gemini and Apollo missions captivated the country and children were inspired to be part of public service. Google, TikTok, Meta, YouTube and others dominate the classrooms and everyday life. We need to guide young minds back to public service and national security.

For example, we need more talent in digital signal processing. Since Gen Z is strongly committed to social causes, we can show them through experiential projects how they can leverage technology to make the world better and safer.

To achieve this, we must proactively work with academia to develop an engaging digital signal processing and radio frequency curriculum and sponsor engagement programs in these areas throughout the school year.

We can’t simply hope they’ll choose these education paths and we can’t just attend career fairs in the hopes of finding candidates for hire.

Provide meaningful benefits.

We can talk about healthcare premiums until we are blue in the face, but most Gen Z employees don’t maximize their healthcare coverage nor do they have a primary care physician.

Gen Z wants continuous learning of contemporary technology, enhanced tuition reimbursement, and reimbursement for strategically valuable certifications in areas like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, Agile Development, ServiceNow and GitLab.

They demand flexibility in work – especially remote work – and they absolutely want mobility. Those are the “meaningful benefits” we hear about from Gen Zers and they are even willing to take a pay cut for these opportunities.

Empower all your employees to collaborate and work with other teams across various customers and missions. At CACI, we call our program #makingmoves. The program makes it easier for employees to seamlessly move around the company and find new, challenging opportunities.   

For Gen Z: let’s not merely offer them a job, but an engaging, dynamic career with growth potential.

Retention is about engagement, learning and challenges, digital collaboration and empowering Gen Z to disruptively enable change.

Glenn Kurowski is senior vice president and chief technology officer for CACI International.