Sunshine and Pay Raises: How Governments Poach Employees From Other Governments

The recruiting tactic may grow as baby boomers leave more job vacancies.
August 24, 2017
Job seekers lined up at a job fair.
Job seekers lined up to talk about opportunities with the San Francisco Police Department at a job fair. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Do you like warm weather and sunshine? What if someone said you could have it all year long?

These are some of the tactics cities in California and Florida use to persuade public employees in the Midwest and elsewhere into working for them instead.

"They come here in the wintertime, and they try to draw people from our applicant pool," says Brian Mahone, a recruiting supervisor for the Indianapolis Police Department.

According to Mahone, it's common for cities with warmer climates to show up at job fairs hundreds, even thousands of miles away. He's already seen two police departments from California and one from Texas this year try to get people to leave the state.

Indianapolis, however, is tired of being the victim of poaching and may send their own recruiters to Kentucky.

"Many cities try to recruit from other cities and the states," says Nelson Lim, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in human resources.

Looking at the state of the public workforce, it's not surprising. There were about 75 million men and women in the baby boom generation, many of whom have retired or are headed for retirement. Their immediate replacement cadre, Gen X, consists of 20 million fewer people. That leaves a lot of openings, says Heidi Voorhees, president of GovHRUSA, an executive recruitment, management consultant and temporary staffing firm for state and local governments. 

Cities and states could, of course, hire locally for all those openings, so, why then, do countless governments look elsewhere to fill them?

According to Lim, it's because "you can get someone who is already trained. That way, you can save training costs." It's debatable, however, whether the cost of training outweighs the cost of traveling for recruitment.

Nevertheless, Lim says the bigger the city, the more aggressive they tend to recruit outsiders. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has about 20 staff members dedicated to recruiting, "so they have a massive ability to go and attract candidates from elsewhere," says Lim. Typically, their recruiters go to medium-sized cities with relatively large police departments where salaries are lower than the LAPD's.

Places that can't lure people to them based solely on their weather usually rely on the promise of higher pay. Poaching is easiest, though, when your targets are people who can make more money without having to move. That's often the case when cities and counties steal employees from the state government.

According to Susan Buxton, HR Administrator of the Idaho Division of Human Resources, local governments often have more flexibility in the salaries they can offer and can therefore pay more than the state for the same hard-to-fill jobs.

"Employees leave states for localities to go for the cash," says Buxton. "Local city and county building departments lure away the building inspectors, plumbing inspectors and electrical building inspectors from the state."

Similarly, California's Santa Clara Valley Water District, which has a high cost of living, recruits personnel but keeps its sights set on other cities that aren't too far away and have lower costs of living.

"We tend to entice employees from smaller water agencies and cities to work with us and have had success in doing so," says Anil Comelo, deputy administrative officer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. "They end up commuting, but they earn more money without facing a higher cost of living."

Though employee poaching is reasonably common in the public sector, it doesn't mean that states, counties and cities that can't pay as much as other places are doomed for unfilled vacancies. Many other factors play a role in where someone chooses a job, including an area's quality of life, the organization's work/life balance and opportunities for advancement.

"Nashville is fairly competitive in pay with the state of Tennessee," says Rebecca Hunter, commissioner of Tennessee's HR department. "But I can't even recall hearing someone say we lost someone to Metro Nashville. There are more opportunities for development and advancement [in state government] because we're the largest employer in the state."

Despite that, Tennessee has had unique poaching problems from within. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for state agencies’ leaders to discover, out of the blue, that one of their employees had been poached by another state agency.

"You would find out after an offer had already been made that you needed to get ready to lose a key person," says Hunter.

This flew in the face of the idea that the state was a single enterprise, not a conglomeration of independent agencies. But when the leadership of the state became aware of this issue, steps were taken to alleviate it.

"Now, we have some unwritten protocols that we all follow," says Hunter. "For instance, if I’m interested in an assistant or deputy commissioner in another agency, I’m going to pick up the phone and call the cabinet member because that’s who the person works for. And I’m going to explain my needs. And I don’t remember anyone saying no."