The Growing Urgency of Government's Quest for Talent

It's harder than ever to recruit and retain the qualified workers the public sector needs, but there are strategies that can help a lot.
June 21, 2016 AT 6:15 AM
By Elizabeth K. Kellar  |  Contributor
Senior Fellow with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and director of public policy for the International City/County Management Association

There's a looming government workforce crisis, and it's not even on the radar screen for too many state and local elected officials. Human-resources managers, however, are well aware of the challenges of recruiting and retaining the qualified workers governments urgently need.

That concern is documented in the latest annual survey from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE). For the second year in a row, members of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and the National Association of State Personnel Executives ranked recruiting and retaining qualified personnel as their most important workforce issue.

It's true that governments are hiring again, mostly to fill the ranks of those who are retiring. But states and localities are having a hard time finding qualified candidates, particularly for specialized, highly skilled jobs such as positions in finance, management, IT, skilled trades, health care and public safety.

Why are governments struggling? For one thing, state and local governments have been slow to emerge from the Great Recession. They have 500,000 fewer employees than they did in 2008 due to layoffs, hiring freezes and a growing number of eligible employees choosing to retire. With fewer younger workers in the pipeline, there simply are not as many people available inside government for promotions.

Another issue is that most state and local government jobs require a college education, specialized training or both. The competition for highly educated personnel, from engineers to epidemiologists, is intense, but even jobs open to high-school graduates, such as positions in water treatment, require training and certifications.

Demographic changes also pose special challenges for government workforces. Not only are state and local government workers, on average, older than their private-sector counterparts, but the younger population is increasingly diverse. Attracting candidates from families or cultures that do not have a tradition of public-service work may prove difficult.

The hurdle of building a workforce that reflects changes in the population shouldn't be underestimated. According to SLGE's analysis of census data, from 2014 to 2060 the nation's Hispanic-origin population is projected to increase from 17 percent to 29 percent; those of Asian origin are projected to increase from 5 percent of the population to 9 percent; and the proportion of African-Americans is expected to rise by one percentage point, to 14 percent. African-Americans now make up 14 percent of the local government workforce, but only 12 percent of that workforce is of Hispanic origin and 3 percent is of Asian origin.

So what are the solutions? Government leaders know their organizations will go through rapid change in the years ahead, and many are committed to making the needed transformation. Perhaps the most important commitment is for governments to become learning organizations. To fill many positions, governments not only must seek qualified applicants from the outside and market themselves, but they also need to be prepared to bring back retirees to work on projects and to mentor young talent.

Millennials are ambitious and eager to build their skills and expertise quickly. As one young local-government employee explained, when he is job hunting he looks at the reputation of the organization. Although compensation is important, the deciding factor for him is the opportunity to learn from a progressive manager.

The bottom line? Give young people a chance to learn and grow so they will be ready to step up to leadership positions. While they may move around more than previous generations, they will bring their technology expertise and energy to the organization. This is a generation that wants to make a difference, and that's good news for government.