A new era for government work is here

Sunrise over the Wisconsin State Capitol as seen from Bascom Hill at UW–Madison

Written by Susan Webb Yackee. Originally published by the Wisconsin State Journal

Public service in America is at a crossroads.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than a quarter of public employees are over 55. That number approaches 30% if you just look at the federal government.

And the situation is similar in Wisconsin: Retirements were up in the Wisconsin Retirement System in 2020 and 2021. Many more retirements are on the way.

Whatever your thoughts might be on the appropriate size of government, society can’t function without our public sector workforce. After all, government policies need to be implemented, and programs must be administered. But what we all might be able to agree on is that society is better off when our government is more efficient, equitable and cost-effective.

We accomplish this by enhancing the skill level of the public sector workforce. This is our goal at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison, where I serve as the director.

The nature of a large portion of public sector work is rapidly shifting. Employees now entering the government workforce are increasingly required to use innovative technologies and analyze data to identify what works, and what doesn’t, in policymaking and implementation. In short, it’s a new era for government work, and it’s a workforce development opportunity.

One encouraging change in the field is the bipartisan movement to remove college degree requirements from some government jobs where basic skills can be obtained through on-the-job training or trade schools. This is an important step toward democratizing government service — making select jobs more accessible to a larger swath of people.

Profile photo of Susan Webb Yackee
“The current wave of public sector retirements taking place presents a tremendous societal opportunity to invigorate our government with a workforce that will be crucial to ensuring economic prosperity and security,” said Director Susan Webb Yackee

On the other hand, a large portion of government work will require higher skills than in the past. And while recent technological developments have already had profound effects, artificial intelligence has the potential to reconfigure government work even further. Universities such as mine must develop new training programs in advanced skills to meet these challenges.

This is all to say that the current wave of public sector retirements taking place presents a tremendous societal opportunity to invigorate our government with a workforce that will be crucial to ensuring economic prosperity and security.

As the public sector evolves, so does public policy education. Students at schools such as La Follette are prepared for these roles through cutting-edge courses and hands-on experiences. La Follette’s curriculum emphasizes advanced statistical methods, evidence-based policymaking, economic development and much more. Our courses are rooted in facts, data and nonpartisan analysis.

For example, last fall’s cost-benefit analysis seminar gave graduate students hands-on experience with clients as diverse as the Sauk County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the state Public Service Commission and the UW-Madison Division of Extension Richland County. They helped these organizations identify what works and what doesn’t in their own real-world programming — invaluable experience for when the students join the public sector.

They rigorously evaluated if policies were meeting goals, serving the public as intended and worth the cost. So these lessons will serve taxpayers well, too.

Across the country, 1 in 5 young adults say they would like to work for the government. To meet the growing demand, public policy programs are expanding at universities across the country. At La Follette, where we have been training graduate students in public policy and implementation for nearly four decades, we added an undergraduate certificate in public policy in 2019 and an undergraduate certificate in health policy in 2021. Like our graduate programs, these require hands-on training in classes such as “Evidence-based policymaking” and “Discovering what works in health policy.”

Since its inception, the number of students in the certificate program has grown sixfold. It is one of the fastest-growing programs on the UW-Madison campus. Demand is so high that we are exploring the creation of an undergraduate major in public policy — with classes offered as soon as fall of 2024. We view this program as an apprenticeship for impactful government employment.

In the public sector, massive retirements are an opportunity to fundamentally change the face of government, and our public policy challenges demand a highly skilled and nonpartisan workforce. It’s critically important we meet this moment with the urgency it demands. How we respond at these crossroads will have huge implications for the future efficiency and quality of government.

Subscribe to our newsletter