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Government Is Hiring, But Faces Tough Competition for Workers

In many cases, state and local governments have more jobs than applicants. HR departments are fighting employee burnout, rising retirement and competition from the private sector to fill them.

Michelle Stafford, right, a nurse for Summit County, Ohio, Public Health, administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot March 26 to Charlie Nation. Recruitment of public nurses has fallen far behind the number of available positions as state and local governments struggle to find and retain skilled workers in the post-pandemic economy.
Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Jour/TNS
Recruiting and retaining state and local government workers is the most difficult it has been in decades. Government is hiring, but human resource professionals face competition from the private sector, accelerating retirement rates and a shortage of applicants for public safety, health care, engineering and information technology jobs.

These are some of the findings from State and Local Workforce 2021, the latest in a series of surveys of human resources professionals that the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE) has conducted each year since 2009, in partnership with the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and the National Association of State Personnel Executives.

One of the key differences between the 2021 survey and the one conducted following the 2008 recession is a dramatic shift in retirement trends, says Gerald Young, senior research analyst for SLGE. In 2009, 44 percent of respondents said that retirement-eligible staff were planning to postpone retirement, but in 2021 only 2 percent said this. In 2021, 38 percent said retirement-eligible staff were planning to accelerate retirement, compared to 12 percent in 2009.

“This is placing an additional burden on organizations who have difficulty recruiting anyway,” says Young. Moreover, the Silver Tsunami has not reached its peak. More than half of those surveyed believe that the biggest wave will come in the next few years.

Problems with replacing existing workers, and finding the new ones that public agencies need, don’t just affect the public sector. State and local government workers account for roughly 13 percent of the U.S. labor force, says Josh Franzel, managing director for SLGE. “When the state local government sector gets a cold as an employer, that impacts everyone else.”
Growth of flexible work and remote work practicies
HR professionals report significant growth of remote work and flexible work schedules.
(Source: SLGE at ICMA-RC)

Remote Work, Flexible Schedules

In 2021, more organizations had jobs that are remote-only or involve a hybrid of remote and in-person work. More than half now offer regular telework for eligible positions, while only 27 percent did in 2009; 64 percent of state entities have this option as compared of 19 percent of local ones.

Karen Niparko, executive director of the Office of Human Resources for the city and county of Denver, expects full- or part-time remote work to become the norm for jobs that don’t require in-person contact with the public. “I don’t believe we’ll ever go back to the way it was pre-COVID,” she says. “We learned that we could get a lot of work done, that we could innovate and improve processes in many cases.”

Employees appreciated the fact that working remotely made it easier to care for their children, exercise and balance work and life in other ways, says Niparko. In addition to telework, the great majority of organizations (75 percent) in the past year gave more employees access to work practices such as flexible weekly schedules and work hours, and 72 percent increased the range of such options.

Whether such trends will continue will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some may choose to go back to a fully in-person workforce. Other state and local governments implemented remote work only briefly during the pandemic, some not at all.

The pandemic supercharged the growth in online services, allowing governments with digital services in place at the turn of the millennium to become more mature, says Franzel. The growth in remote work will reflect strategic decisions by state and local leaders about which services are best delivered online, informed by recent experience and input from citizens.

Number of Applicants This Past Year Compared to the Number of Positions Available
State and local government jobs that are hard to fill
(Source: SLGE at ICMA-RC)

More Jobs Than Applicants

More than half of survey participants reported difficulty filling positions in health care, policing, corrections, engineering and skilled trades. Some of the recruiting problems may be after-effects of the recent racial justice turmoil, others the result of competition with the private sector.

Niparko says a shortage of applicants for law enforcement positions is not new, but believes the events of the past year will make it even harder to fill them. “People are becoming reluctant and a little nervous about becoming police officers,” she says. “In some states a police officer can be personally sued for behavior on the job, and that scares people.”

Safety departments need to rethink their strategies around branding and recruitment, about how police services are delivered and by whom, she says. “The world is changing, and it’s changing pretty fast.”

The biggest gap found between job openings and applicants was with registered nurses. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they had more open jobs than qualified applicants for them. According to the American Nursing Association, this shortage is a nationwide phenomenon, driven by retirements, the needs of an aging population and burnout — the latter reaching new levels during the pandemic.

The past year was the best ever for big tech. IT workers were more valuable than ever, and their employers were more than willing to let them work from home and relocate in cities or states where their salaries could afford them the best possible quality of life.

Government needs these professionals more than ever, but competing against the private sector with its higher salaries and reputation for innovation and creativity is not easy. Nearly six in 10 jurisdictions said the number of positions they had for IT employees was greater than the number of people who applied for them. Nearly two-thirds said the same thing about wages, competition and workplace culture for engineering jobs.

The Long-Term Outlook

As government rebuilds, advances in technology and the expansion of virtual services will continue to redefine the types and number of jobs that HR departments will need to fill. The state workforce is projected to decrease by 2 percent in the next ten years, and the local government to grow by 4.2 percent.

These statistical decreases don’t necessarily mean fewer government jobs. At nearly 14 million, the local government workforce, which is expected to grow, is considerably larger than the approximately 5 million working in state government.

Most of the positions expected to need significantly fewer workers would seem to be directly in the path of digital innovation. This further underscores the need for public-sector employers to overcome barriers to recruiting skilled IT workers.

Better Branding

If government recruiters want to compete with the private sector, they need to adopt the same strategies, says Denver’s Karen Niparko. This starts with branding, brand recognition and “brand promise” — the value or experience in every interaction. Companies such as coffee chains reap fortunes based on brand promise, but encounters with government aren’t likely to have the same appeal as a coffee run.

Several years ago, Denver HR went through a branding effort, aimed at current employees as well as recruits. The brand that resulted, “Be part of the city that you love,” was promoted online, in printed marketing brochures and through social media. These materials include photos of employees, who are enlisted as brand ambassadors.

Niparko has found that millennials want to learn, to grow and to make a difference in the world. “Purpose is what government is all about, and it is very attractive to them if we can also meet their needs for things such as work flexibility,” she says. Seventy to 80 percent of her hires are from the millennial generation, she says, and they are strong performers.
Denver develped an HR brand "Be part of the city that you love," that emphasizes public service.
Denver’s HR brand, “Be part of the city that you love,” emphasizes the public service rewards of government jobs and recruits employees as brand ambassadors.
(City and County of Denver.)

Hiring New Workers, Keeping the Old

Recovery for government agencies and citizens alike depends on hiring success. The state and local government employment drop between February and May 2020 was the steepest and quickest in over 20 years, says SLGE’s Joshua Franzel, faster and deeper than what was seen after the Great Recession.

It took about eight years for governments to get themselves out of the hole that they dug themselves into by laying off and furloughing workers after the 2008 financial collapse, he says. The lessons learned from this experience are prompting governments to do everything they can to bring back, retain and recruit workers. This must include attention to employee morale, which has suffered considerably during the pandemic, and wellness and assistance programs.

Uncertainty around budgets has diminished, and the American Rescue Plan is providing billions to state and local governments for workforce and service costs. “We expect to see a lot of this money being used to bring back and hire new public administrators, and time will tell whether or not HR departments get the appropriate amount of help,” says Franzel.

Even if the pandemic had never happened and employment numbers had not crashed, recruiters would need to continuously add workers to meet the increased need for government services that comes with population growth, he says. The pandemic did happen, however, and this natural and necessary growth in employment was another casualty.

As a result, HR departments have to make up for this setback, bringing workers back, staying ahead of the retirement wave and gaining the competitive edge necessary to recruit technology specialists, engineers, police and health-care workers that government needs.

“It’s very challenging,” says Franzel.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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