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'Choose Purpose': Cities Launch Ad Campaigns to Attract More Job Applicants

Are they working?

Bus ad seen through a car.
(City and County of Denver)
"Be a part of the city that you love."

"Choose purpose."

"Serving community. Building careers."

These are the respective recruitment slogans for the cities of Denver, San Francisco and Minneapolis. As local governments increasingly compete with the private sector for employees, some have begun deploying public relations campaigns to attract civic-minded people to work for them.

“Denver is one of the fastest-growing economies in the country,” says Karen Niparko, the city’s human resources director. “We realized that it's so competitive that we have to play the game the way the private sector plays it.”

The nation’s unemployment is now at a low 4 percent, and Denver’s has dropped to just 2.9 percent.

“Employees are shopping employers -- not the other way around,” says Diane Vertovec, the city’s marketing and communications director.

To compete in this market, Denver spent $65,000 on brand research, creative development and two brand introduction videos” launched in 2016. "Be a part of the city that you love” ads have since appeared online, on public transit, at Denver International Airport, on billboards and at movie theaters throughout the city.

During the campaign periods when these ads ran, the city saw total applications increase by nearly 10 percent. First-time applications went up about 2 percent.

San Francisco started using its “choose purpose” language specifically to court technologists, in 2016, after focus groups and market research suggested they were willing to give up a higher-paying job for one they found more meaningful.

A study by Deloitte Consulting found something similar: Sixty percent of millennials said they chose their workplace because it gives them a “sense of purpose.” That gives San Francisco's HR officials a sense of hope.

“We can't offer you stock options,” says Susan Gard, the chief of policy for the city’s HR department, “but we can offer you purpose."

This type of recruiting, in general, is a trend in state and local government HR departments across the country.

“The idea that a government employer has a brand was a novel concept just a few years ago,” explains a recent report from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. “Today, it is not unusual for government leaders to pay much more attention to their government’s brand and how to improve it.”

Just this week, Minneapolis launched its new "employer brand" with the tagline “Serving Community. Building Careers.” That theme is now reflected on the city's website, social media accounts and other materials. "Our aim is to attract people who have a value of public service," says Patience Ferguson, the city's chief human resources officer.

Mission statements, of course, aren’t everything in the job market. Gard says she and her colleagues initially thought “young people don’t care about having a pension,” but their market research and focus groups with technologists quickly rid them of this notion.

That works in the public sector's favor. While governments are making employees contribute more toward their pensions, public workers still generally enjoy more retirement benefits than their private counterparts.

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