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To Stay or Go? Why and How Millennials Job Hop by Sector

Portia Polk
Like many Americans in their 20s, Portia Polk, SPA/MPA ’18, has sampled a variety of jobs.

Like many Americans in their 20s, Portia Polk, SPA/MPA ’18, has sampled a variety of jobs.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Polk served for two years as a high school college advisor with the Carolina College Advising Corps. From there she entered graduate school at the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA), moving from a job in graduate admissions, to an internship at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, to a full-time position at a grant-writing consulting firm. After finishing her degree, she joined a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., and also works as a university adjunct professor.

“My parents are from an era when you stayed in a job for 15 or 20 years. I can’t imagine being in a job for that long,” said Polk, 27. “Growing up, we were taught to engage in all of our interests –– and we are used to having things immediately. On the job after a few years, if we feel like we aren’t getting it all, we think we can –– somewhere else. We have mobility in a way that people in years prior have not.” While she is most interested in working at nonprofit organizations, she admits to being tempted by the higher salaries on offer in the private sector.

Polk is not alone: many millennials expect to bounce around more in their careers compared to previous generations, as their interests and circumstances change. To learn more about why they leave jobs –– and where they go –– SPA Associate Professor Khaldoun AbouAssi conducted a study with Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, Associate Professor at George Washington University, and Stephen Holt, SPA/PhD ’17, Assistant Professor at State University of New York (SUNY). Their results were recently published in the article “Job Mobility Among Millennials: Do They Stay or Do They Go?” in the Review of Public Personnel Administration.

Analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 2008 to 2013, the researchers noted that millennials frequently switched jobs within, rather than across, sectors. Low pay motivated millennials to leave the nonprofit sector, while job dissatisfaction was reported as the strongest predictor for abandoning the public sector. The survey results also suggested that millennials expect to make a difference in society at large regardless of sector. “This was interesting because we typically think that if you want to make a difference or believe in social change, you work for a nonprofit,” said AbouAssi.

Interestingly, when young people volunteered in their free time, they were less likely to switch sectors. “It might be that when you volunteer, you are civic-minded, which helps with what you are doing as an employee,” said AbouAssi.

Since pay will always be higher in the private sector, the study authors recommend that nonprofit managers offer other kinds of rewards, such as flexible work schedules, to attract and retain millennials. To keep young workers satisfied in the public sector, the research suggests that administrators allow these employees agency, promote their contributions, and make them feel that they are making a difference on the job.

These findings resonate with Portia Polk. As a final suggestion for employers of all sectors, she maintained that organizations who want to retain young talent should invest more in their professional development and make them feel like a part of a team working together toward a solution.