Why Creating Purpose at Work Is Key to Retaining Talent

The public sector can help educational institutions and government agencies find and retain the best talent in the new world of work.

The past three years have ushered in a permanent evolution in the world of work. While employers traditionally believed that compensation was the driving force for job seekers, people’s attitudes about work in the aftermath of the pandemic have now changed. Job seekers and employees are also focused on the non-monetary aspects of work, such as flexibility, culture, and finding meaning in what they do every day. And this new reality is reflected in the ongoing workforce crisis so many employers now face. 

The public sector is no exception to this situation. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 608,000 state and local government job openings in January 2023, compared with only 200,000 hires that month. And according to a 2022 MissionSquare Research Institute research survey, 52% of public sector employees said they are considering changing jobs. 

The UKG Great Place to Work™ (GPTW) Institute conducted research to find out how great workplaces are responding to this new working environment. The Institute found that great workplaces inspire, engage, and retain talent by focusing on purpose. That is, providing employees with work that is more than “just a job.”

Organizations where employees feel they make a difference are less likely to lose top talent, more likely to have employees recommend their organization to others, and more likely to outperform their competitors.

These lessons apply to public sector organizations that need to reassess and explore new ways to attract and retain talent in this challenging workplace landscape. This means delivering the kind of employee experience and sense of purpose that today’s workers seek. Here’s how public sector organizations can get started on this path to employee purpose.

Why Creating Purpose at Work Is Key to Retaining Talent

Step up your branding game

The general public doesn’t understand all the ways in which public sector organizations make a positive difference in the lives of the people they serve. Consequently, the meaningful and important work of the public sector is often overlooked by job seekers, particularly younger people who, ironically, are looking for the exact kind of mission and purpose that public sector jobs offer. 

To respond, public sector organizations need to do a better job explaining what they do and how their work can provide satisfying and meaningful careers across a wide range of opportunities. One easy and impactful place to start is with job descriptions. Organizations need to promote their job vacancies with a stronger emphasis on the opportunity to make a difference rather than long lists of duties and requirements, and then market these opportunities by recruiting aggressively via more modern channels such as social media. 

Become an employer of choice 

It’s a simple fact that public sector organizations can’t succeed without top talent. The most innovative ideas and plans will come to nothing without the right people to deliver on them. So how do you become an organization people want to work for?

Start by creating an environment where employees feel good about the work they’re doing, believe they’re making a difference, see how they’re contributing to their organization's mission, and feel valued. Research from Gallup shows that high levels of employee engagement result in better organizational performance — and Great Place to Work™ (GPTW) reports that high-engagement organizations have up to 50% less turnover than low-engagement organizations.

Start by creating an environment where employees feel good about the work they’re doing, believe they’re making a difference, see how they’re contributing to their organization's mission, and feel valued. 



The GPTW research also shows that when employees believe their work matters and their purpose is aligned with the organization, they are more loyal, engaged, and proud of where they work — and thus more likely to stay. Moreover, GPTW recommends surveying employees to assess whether the right conditions exist to be a great place to work by asking them if they are proud of their workplace, if they find their work meaningful, and if they have fun at work. If the answer is no to any of those questions, employees will likely leave.

The importance of purpose also spans generations. The research reveals that “…only 79% of millennials say their work has special meaning, compared to 90% of baby boomers. For millennials (and their younger Gen Z brethren), purpose affects how they see their future. They’re willing to walk away from jobs that lack meaning.”

Lean into diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B)

The demographics of the U.S. are rapidly changing, and the public sector has a particular responsibility to build workforces that represent the people it serves. DEI&B is not just the right thing to do – it’s also a business imperative.

The evidence bears this out. Diverse leadership teams have been shown to be more innovative and make better organizational decisions. Employee engagement research shows that employees want to work in organizations that prioritize and value DEI&B, and this organizational focus therefore drives attraction and retention. So, when you prioritize and achieve DEI&B, your organization will be in a much better position to attract and retain top talent.

It’s no longer your parents’ public sector

Because employee engagement is so critical to the success of the public sector, organizations must especially focus on creating healthy cultures that attract and retain talented employees who will deliver for the organization and the public it serves. Just having a job with decent benefits and a good paycheck is no longer good enough for today’s job seeker, particularly those in the millennial and Gen Z demographics. 

Public sector organizations must work hard to communicate and market their critical missions and the opportunities for public servants to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve. In this way, they can attract the talented people who will serve the public in new and exciting ways.

For more information about UKG for Public Sector solutions, please visit our State and Local Government, Higher Education, and K-12 web pages. 


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Watch Bob Lavigna and other thought leaders discuss “Attracting and Retaining Talent in the New World of Work” in a UKG Workforce Realities public sector webinar replay.