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Openings for State Jobs Are Up, So Why Are Applications Down?

A new study shows the depth -- and the root causes -- of the public sector's workforce problem.

School Bus with a Now Hiring Sign


  • A National Association of State Chief Administrators survey shows that state government job postings rose 11 percent from 2013 to 2017.
  • Meanwhile, the number of people applying to state jobs dropped by 24 percent.
  • CAOs cited noncompetitive salaries, negative perceptions about public service and insufficient recruitment as reasons.
At a time when the unemployment rate is a low 3.8 percent, the public sector is falling far behind in its desperate search for talented employees.

Even though postings for state government jobs rose 11 percent from 2013 to 2017, the number of applicants for those jobs dropped by 24 percent, according to a study by the National Association of State Chief Administrators (NASCA).

The chief administrative officers (CAOs) who were surveyed blame this workforce dilemma on several issues: 85 percent said states can't offer salaries that are competitive with the private sector; 55 percent said there's a negative public perception about working for the government; and a third cited the lack of recruitment tools at their disposal as one of the biggest barriers to hiring.

"If governors, legislators and state chief administrators don’t take action today, if they don’t modernize job descriptions and change employee culture, the ultimate failure will be to the citizens," says Jamie Rodgers, deputy director of NASCA.


Obsolete Job Descriptions

The report compared the CAOs' responses to those of corporate executives. One of the big differences is that private-sector leaders had a much stronger understanding that jobs are changing and that job descriptions need to change with them. 

"Many of the job descriptions in state government are based on compensation and classification schemes that are decades old," says Bill Kilmartin, state and local government industry lead at Accenture, a global services company that helped conduct the NASCA report. "The job descriptions themselves are tied to old skills and competencies that are not relevant nowadays." 

The report points out that one state -- unnamed -- still asks for the ability to operate an IBM Selectric typewriter, which was introduced in 1961, in widespread use in the 1970s and '80s, but is only used today as the answer to a trivia question about outdated technology.

When job descriptions are obsolete, a recruitment effort is like building a house on a faulty foundation. Yet only 18 percent of CAOs said jobs and job descriptions had been "updated or modernized" to a "very large" or "large extent."


NOTE: This data represents the number of applicants.


Changing Recruitment Strategies

Insufficient recruitment efforts exacerbate the problem.

"Governments have traditionally been focused on intake. They’ve got to do more outreach," says Shane Evangelist, CEO of NEOGOV, which provided state and local jobs data for the NASCA report.

What can governments do to level the playing field? 

Play to their strengths. The public sector has several that are particularly important to millennial job seekers: an altruistic mission, a strong work-life balance, a flexible environment, and on-the-job training and career guidance.

While many states haven't significantly altered their culture, some are adopting new recruitment approaches. 

Louisiana is now using social media to draw applicants and post online videos to explain why they should work in state government. Indiana created an unusual cabinet-level position that focuses on workforce development for both the private and public sectors, including local government. This increases the opportunities for all sectors to learn from each other. 

"Employers as a whole need to look at how we hire differently," says Blair Milo, Indiana's first-ever secretary of career connections and talent. 

The state used to only reach out to college students who were thinking about what to major in and what to do after graduation. Now, it reaches out to them before they even get on campus.

"There’s a need to have greater engagement earlier with our students so that they have a better understanding of what the opportunities are," says Milo.


Improving the Application Process

California's Department of General Services has addressed one of the major problems cited in the NASCA report: the long delay between applying for a government job and getting a response. By cutting the steps in the hiring process from 89 to 14, the state drastically reduced the time it takes to hire someone from an average of 179 days to 65. 

"We had too many approvals, so we streamlined the process. We cut it down by months," says Daniel Kim, director of the state's general services department.

In Oregon, technology upgrades are helping the state recruit better. It replaced a three-decade-old application software with one that lets managers better analyze data. For instance, they can see which areas are getting the most and least applications and invest their resources accordingly. The new software also provides a more seamless online application process that people can do from their phones.

All these changes are to achieve one goal, says Madeline Zike, the state’s chief human resources officer: "We are working hard at making the state of Oregon an employer of choice." 

This appears in the Management newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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