The Uberizing of the Government Workforce

As the use of contract and temporary workers grows and millennials move into government, the public sector will need to adapt.
by | August 25, 2015

Elizabeth K. Kellar

Senior Fellow with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and director of public policy for the International City/County Management Association

More and more, state and local governments are turning to temporary and contract employees in the wake of the Great Recession, which left their workforces shrunken by some 600,000 workers. Forty-two percent of human-resources managers surveyed this year by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE) reported that they were hiring temporary or contract employees.

It's not hard to see why this is happening in government, just as it is in the private sector. One city manager put it this way: "Hiring contract employees is less risky if we have to downsize again -- and we don't have to cover their benefits." But governments have traditionally relied on high-quality benefits to attract and retain the stable workforces they need for the long haul. "If we're all Uberized, where do I get my benefits?" AFSCME's Steve Kreisberg asked at SLGE's recent Retirement Security Summit.

For now, this independent workforce is filling only a narrow aspect of state and local government service needs, so it's not clear how the issue of benefits will play out. There's a larger picture, however, that points to a need for governments to change their culture and develop a capacity for workplace flexibility. As more millennials move into the workplace, governments will need to change their mindset about where and how work is done. Many of these new workers value flexibility as much or even more than they do wage increases.

Some government are already adjusting. For example, the city of Boulder, Colo., now offers fixed-term assignments, part-time hours, flexible scheduling, or combinations of these approaches.

Coconino County, Ariz., increased its flexible work arrangements after the recession and a period of downsizing. To retain employees when it could offer no salary increases, the county's human-resources department provided job sharing, phased-retirement options, telecommuting and flexible scheduling. These approaches have brought the county national recognition, including one of SLGE's 2011 Workforce Awards and a 2012 American Psychological Association Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award.

But changes to workplace practices will require more than human-resources leadership. It is not unusual, for example, for the barrier to telework to be a single agency director or long-time supervisor who is comfortable only with a 9-to-5, in-the-office routine.

A young state legislative staffer spoke with me about her desire to work from home one day a week. "While compensation matters, I'd rather have the flexibility to telework than a pay increase," she said. We talked about proposing the arrangement on a trial basis so her bosses could see that they were not inconvenienced. Since she is willing to come into the office on a telework day if needed and technology makes it possible to do most of her work from any location, it should work well.

With an aging state and local government workforce heading toward retirement, smart public employers will be attentive to the work preferences of their new hires, especially the younger ones. And while the millennials may be the ones pressing for changes, a more flexible workplace will benefit all generations.

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