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A Road Map for Dealing With Government’s Workforce Crisis

It has put the ability to deliver essential services at risk, and when government fails, people can die. There are real solutions that will make the public sector more competitive to attract and retain talent.

Donated water being handed out in Jackson, Miss.
A volunteer hands out bottled water to residents of Jackson, Miss., last fall at a distribution site set up by World Central Kitchen. The city’s clean-water emergency was caused in part by a shortage of highly trained operators to run the city’s water plant.
(Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
Every day, more than 12 million dedicated public servants in federal, state and local government provide critical services to the American public. Most Americans take these services, overwhelmingly provided effectively and efficiently, for granted.

However, public-sector employee turnover and hiring challenges have put government’s ability to deliver essential services at risk. Government must meet these challenges, and there are solutions that, taken together, can have a powerful impact. The stakes couldn’t be higher because when government fails, people can die. That may seem like hyperbole, but history tells us otherwise.

Consider the government response to Hurricane Katrina, which former NBC broadcaster Brian Williams characterized as “government mismanagement” and “a complete breakdown in coordination” across all levels of government. We’ll never know how many of the nearly 1,400 deaths attributed to the hurricane might have been prevented by a more robust, better-staffed government response.

While that was almost 18 years ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office testified to Congress last year that staffing shortages at the Federal Emergency Management Agency continue to interfere with the agency’s ability “to help people before, during and after disasters, the number of which are increasing.”

Public administration scholar Paul C. Light, in a Brookings Institute analysis, identified “a cascade of failures” of the federal government and concluded that “persistent understaffing” was a leading cause. That was in 2014, well before the so-called “Great Resignation” exacerbated the government workforce crisis that had been building for years.

In state and local government, consider the clean-water emergency in Jackson, Miss. The city’s water crisis, The Washington Post wrote, was a “systemic failure at every level of government” caused in part by a shortage of city Class A water operators — highly trained workers who run the plant. Those who were on the job were working punishing overtime hours. This problem is not limited to Jackson. According to the Center for American Progress, there were 10,000 fewer water and wastewater treatment plant operators on the job in 2021 than in 2019.

In law enforcement, Rand Corporation researchers wrote, “police recruiting — and staffing in general — is in a prolonged crisis” that is “real, persistent and worsening.”

State-run correctional institutions are also struggling. According to one report, the prison workforce across the nation is down nearly 20 percent, and most have left the job in the past two years — a staffing shortage that “threatens officers, inmates and the public’s safety.”

And in public transit, a 2022 American Public Transit Association report chronicled a national shortage of bus and rail operators and mechanics that has forced transit agencies to reduce service.

These are not isolated examples. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 575,000 job openings in state and local government in December 2022, compared to only 195,000 hires. While the private sector has recovered the jobs lost during the pandemic, state and local government had 450,000 fewer employees in January 2023 than in February 2020.

And a MissionSquare Research Institute survey revealed that 52 percent of state and local government employees were considering leaving their jobs.

While these aggregate numbers are alarming, the true story of the workforce crisis is the impact on critical government services, such as law enforcement, emergency services, public transit and public works. Problems attracting and retaining talent in government affect people where they live, literally.

What solutions can ensure that the public sector has the talent it needs to continue to deliver for the American public? There isn’t a single answer. It’s an all-of-the-above situation, but here are some suggestions for starters:

Fix pay problems. Government should not have to compete with the fast-food industry for talent. That may be an extreme example, but if pay is too low, increase it to be competitive. Also calculate and publicize the total value of compensation to include the monetary value of benefits, which remain competitive with the private sector.

Eliminate nonessential hiring requirements. Managers want employees who can work collaboratively to solve problems, function successfully in teams and communicate well. Rather than imposing arbitrary minimum qualifications on job applicants, such as a degree or specific years of experience (unless required by law), hire based on whether the candidate can excel in the job. Apply tools and techniques that truly assess job candidates’ skills and experience. The result will be a more diverse, robust and qualified talent pipeline.

Make hiring timelier and more user-friendly. One agency’s hiring process was once described as “hiring the best of the desperate” — those hardy souls with few options willing to fight their way through a slow and convoluted process. I recently heard a government HR director proudly proclaim that his agency had reduced time-to-hire to 170 days. And this was a big reduction. Government needs to do better, including aggressively marketing the value of public service, to be competitive for the best talent.

Make diversity and equity a business imperative. People want to work where diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) are embraced and championed from the top down. In recruiting, let prospective employees know that DEIB is integral to the organization and its leaders, and to everyone’s success. The result, according to Great Place To Work, a global authority on workplace culture, will be employees who are 5.4 times more likely to want to stay with their organization for a long time, as well as larger, more diverse and more talented applicant pools.

Build employee engagement. Talented people are the organization’s competitive advantage — but only when they’re having a great employee experience. Engaged employees are proud of what they do and feel the organization values them. They believe in their organization’s mission, are more productive and deliver better customer service.

Building engagement requires a positive employee experience that includes every aspect of the employment life cycle — recruiting and hiring, onboarding, supervision, training and development, recognition, performance management, pay and benefits, equity and inclusion, and employee well-being. Organizations that create a positive employee experience are five times more likely to engage and retain employees.

Creating a positive experience also means meeting employees’ demands for workplace flexibility. Even when employees can’t work remotely, employers need to provide as much scheduling flexibility as possible.

Use data to make decisions. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. However, not all government organizations have the tools or the capacity to collect and analyze data to measure their effectiveness in attracting, developing, engaging and retaining talent. That’s a barrier that has to be overcome.

The most comprehensive way to understand and measure the employee experience is to survey employees. Asking employees how they feel about the workplace and their work experience enables the employer to understand the level of engagement in the workforce — and how to boost it. Guessing or relying on anecdotes or social events no longer work in an era of intense competition for talent.

It's imperative for governments at all levels to up their game in that competition. Public servants have played a critical role in making America one of history’s great civilizations. But the work of America is not finished. To fully achieve its potential, our nation must have a strong and high-performing public sector. The stakes are far too high to settle for any other outcome.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Robert J. Lavigna is senior fellow-public sector for the Ultimate Kronos Group.
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