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Sloan Center News

Remembering When And How Age Can Affect Employment Experiences

29 June 2009—According to a 2009 analysis of National Compensation Survey data, "among public sector workers, State government workers had higher rates of access to wellness programs and employee assistance programs than did local government workers." Private sector workers had least access to such services.

A number of factors may contribute to an individual’s choice to work for a state agency versus a private sector employer. In addition to one’s career interests and goals, benefits and work environment can play a significant role.

In addition to having greater access to wellness and employee assistance programs, employees of state agencies reap a number of other benefits. For example, far more state agencies (65.7%) offer extended leave for caregiving to most or all full-time workers than do private organizations (30.5%). Varied schedules, adjusted starting/quitting times and compressed workweeks are also more commonly offered in state agencies.

But the private sector is not entirely without its own benefits. Private sector organizations offer more choices in what shift is worked, more job share opportunities and more opportunities to work part-year, to name a few.

Challenges for States

In today’s economy the public and private sectors are increasingly competing for talent. For savvy employers, a better under¬standing of what employee benefits each has to offer should allow both public and private agencies to rethink their re¬cruitment, engagement, and retention policies.

Earlier this Spring, the Center’s States as Employers-of-Choice report shed light on the variety of challenges that state agencies face in retaining employer-of-choice status while responding to the needs of today’s multi-generational workforce. Of the agencies surveyed, the top two HR challenges facing state agencies are compensation and benefits (75%) and recruiting competent talent (56.4%). Another notable challenge for state agencies is knowledge transfer from experienced employees to less experienced employees. Interestingly, private sector employers reported far less difficulty with providing adequate compensation and benefits and slightly more trouble with recruitment of talent.

Due to the current economic downturn, the difficulty providing compensation and benefits is “likely to continue in the public sector and ramp up in the private sector,” according to authors McNamara et. al. “Problems with recruitment and unwanted turnover have far-reaching repercussions for the workplace.” This is related to the challenges that state agencies are facing with knowledge transfer— when an employee leave the agency unexpectedly it “can cause a disruption in the workflow,” especially if the agency has not prepared for such an event.

Public sector organizations also report challenges in providing flexible work options to employees. According to the study’s sample, the largest barrier to expanding these options is difficulty with supervision (52.3%). State agencies also cite concerns with treating employees equally (50.8%), concerns with client/customer reaction (49.6%) and concern about abuse of policies (49.2%) as impediments to establishing options for flexible work.

It is for these reasons the report’s recommendations may prove valuable to state agencies striving to be employers-of-choice.

Strategies for State Action

State agencies seeking to be employers-of-choice in recruiting, engaging and retaining talented workers have a number of feasible options. Given the present state of the economy, though, considering additional low-cost or no-cost benefits to attract workers is probably the best place to start. One possibility , would be expanding options for flexible work, though given the supervisory challenges regarding flexible work, successful implementation may require a certain degree of strategizing and troubleshooting.

Another strategy is for managers to “pay particular attention to critical jobs/functions being assumed by workers who might leave the agency in the next 5 years (for example, with an anticipated retirement) so that they can address any potential knowledge transfer problems in advance.” Further, agencies should compare the average retirement ages for critical employees with the age demographics of the agency as a whole. This may help identify “pockets” of the agency at risk of losing vital expertise. These strategies could prove to be particularly beneficial to agencies who reported difficulty with knowledge transfer.

Additional strategies for state agencies looking to be employers-of-choice include:

  • Periodically assess whether or not the benefits package responds to the preferences of employees;
  • Explore whether different types of learning opportunities are more interesting to or more effective with employees in different age/generational groups;
  • Consider various forms of mentoring, it does not need to be considered a “one-way” experience;
  • Provide training to supervisors so that they understand the rationale for promoting the use of existing flexible work options.

 Please see the full States as Employers-of-Choice Research Highlight for more detailed information.


at a glance: the states as employers-of-choice study

The States as Employers-of-Choice project is a collaborative initiative being implemented by the Twiga Foundation, Inc. and the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. This project is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The 2-year project provides resources to HR managers at state agencies so that they can respond to shifts in the age demographics of the workforce.

The State as Employers-of-Choice Study is one component of the overall project. Data collection began in spring 2008 and was concluded in fall 2008. A total of 222 agencies from 27 states responded to the online survey used to gather information.

The following list provides some background information about the agencies in that participated in the study. Due to the relatively small number of agencies that participated in this study, we do not present the results of statistical tests that calculate the probability that the differences between the agencies could have occurred by chance. Among the participating state agencies, approximately:

  • 92.4% of the employees are full-time employees.
  • 51.8% of the employees are women.
  • 19.8% of the employees are members of a racial/ethnic minority group.
  • 3.8% of the workforces is under the age of 24,
  • 26.1% are between the ages of 25–39,
  • 42.6% are between 40–54,
  • 24.1% are between 55–65, and
  • 3.0% are over the age of 65.
  • 37.0% of the agencies experienced an increase in the percentage of workers between the ages of 55–65 when compared to 1 year ago.
  • 13.4% of the employees are managers.
  • 47.3% of the employees are professional or technical employees.

The survey results are compared in a number of areas with the 2006 National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development conducted at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. Although the economic and demographic situation has evolved over the 2-year time span, the two studies ask many of the same questions and provide a unique window into how thinking and practices in the private and public sector compare.