The de Beaumont Foundation is looking forward to a lively panel discussion on Millennials in the public health workforce at the APHA Annual Meeting and Expo in November. To give you a preview, the foundation’s vice president of communications, Mark Miller, sat down with Brian Castrucci, CEO, and special assistant Lizzie Corcoran, who recently served as the foundation’s 2017-18 ASPPH Philanthropy Fellow. As the only non-Millennial on the panel, Brian wants to make it clear that he recognizes he is not a Millennial and will be happy to let the other panelists take the lead!

Note: We’re using the definition of Millennials from the Pew Research Center — people born from 1981 to 1996.

Mark: How did you get this idea for the panel, and why is it important?

Lizzie: It’s come up at nearly every meeting I have attended for the past year. Many speakers reinforce the negative stereotypes about Millennials from the podium, jokingly or otherwise. I understand that some managers feel frustrated about the challenge of attracting and retaining young people in public health (especially state and local government agencies). But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard generalizations about our need for participation trophies, dependency on technology, and our sense of entitlement.

Brian: As you know, I’m not a Millennial, and that’s exactly why this issue interests me. It bothers me to hear public health professionals share negative stereotypes in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable for any other demographic group. We’ve all heard the generalizations — that Millennial workers are disengaged, or they want to be in charge after their first week, or they aren’t loyal to their employers. But that hasn’t been my experience, and I thought it was important to hear directly from Millennials who are already working in public health. If we can understand what’s working and what can work better, we can find ways to effectively engage all of our employees and create a diverse and thriving workforce.

Mark: And what is the problem with retention and employment among this age group?

Lizzie: Young people are underrepresented in the governmental public health workforce. Turnover and retention are a challenge across the board, and agencies need to be able to attract, train, and nurture the leaders and managers of the future.

Mark: Why do you think public health has a hard time attracting young people?

Lizzie: When you look at the numbers of students earning MPH degrees, there’s no shortage of people who are interested in public health. The study of public health appeals to young people’s interests in problem-solving and systems thinking. Many Millennials are passionate about communities and causes, and they see public health as an avenue to pursue these passions. The challenge is that after school, students have many options of where to work, and governmental public health isn’t among the top choices.

Mark: Do we know why that is?

Lizzie: I think there are many reasons. Speaking from my own experience, my professors and advisors in grad school didn’t recommend government as a career option. And getting hired by a government agency often takes longer than other types of jobs. I personally received a rejection letter from a health department a year and a half after I applied. New graduates can’t wait that long.

Brian: It’s also an issue of talent management and acquisition. Governmental public health isn’t recruiting or retaining talent in effective ways. I would love to see health departments change the way they search, find, and interview prospective talent so that they can really get the people who can change and advance our health departments. There are changes we can make in health departments and in human resources to start fixing this. Instead of blaming issues on a particular age group, the field needs to keep up with the times so they can compete with businesses and nonprofits for quality candidates.

Mark: What myths would you like to challenge or flip about millennials?

Lizzie: There are so many! I think the perception that we feel entitled actually comes from our desire to do meaningful work. The idea that we need attention and recognition is really about our eagerness to learn and improve. Specifically, in the public health field, I’ve heard this assumption that people aren’t interested in government work because it’s bureaucratic, maybe because we’re impatient or obsessed with technology. But as part of my fellowship, I got to spend a week at the Baltimore Health Department, and I went on restaurant inspections, observed a needle exchange program, sat in on discussions about policy and partnerships, went with the health commissioner to her speaking events, and got trained in using naloxone. That’s exactly the kinds of hands-on, meaningful work that many millennials are looking for! These are some of the stereotypes that need to be flipped on their heads.

Brian: And people can say that bureaucracy is the problem, but bureaucracy is everywhere — in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Don’t forget that a federal bureaucracy got us to the moon. To me, this is a management issue — managers need to help their employees navigate their internal processes so they can make the biggest possible impact. I’m not saying it will go away, but it’s not always the barrier that we think it is.

Mark: If you had a friend or a fellow student who just got their public health degree, would you recommend applying to a public health department?

Lizzie: Brian once told me that 10 or 20 years into my career, in order to have real credibility, I’ll need to have spent time on the ground in a public health agency, and I understand that. So yes, I’d recommend it. And for me, I’m still thinking about what will be the best fit for me. I think health departments that are embracing innovation and creative problem-solving could be very attractive options for people who want to use their skills to make a difference.

Mark: Okay, here’s your chance to sell your session. Why should people come to the APHA Live Session: A Dialogue with Millennials?

Lizzie: This age group is often overlooked in public health, and this will be a chance to hear a wide range of perspectives from young people serving in public health organizations across the country. We’ll talk about the disconnect between young people and governmental public health — not just the challenges, but also practical recommendations. We want it to be an engaging and interactive session and won’t shy away from any questions!

Brian: I want to add that there will something for everyone with this panel. Managers, supervisors, students, young people in and out of governmental public health….everyone will get something out of this discussion. You’ll be able to bring lessons and tips back to your intergenerational workplaces and continue the conversation.

Join us to hear more at New Voices in Public Health Workforce: A Dialogue with Millennials on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 10:30 a.m. PST in San Diego. If you can’t attend in person, register for APHA Live. This is one of the premier APHA 2018 sessions available via livestream and on-demand.

This post was first published on the APHA Annual Meeting blog on Oct. 9, 2018.

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