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Help Wanted: Counties Look for Ways to Address Staffing Shortages

Across the country, turnover and vacancies are high. Counties are raising salaries but still can't compete with the private sector.

Counties are struggling to fill empty job positions, in part because of the strong economy. Turnover rates in state and local governments are now twice as high as the average over the past couple of decades, in some places topping 25 percent.
(Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)
In  Brief:
  • Like other governments, counties are short-staffed.
  • Many are raising salaries, especially in law enforcement.
  • But lacking enough money to match the private sector, counties are looking for ways to offer employees greater flexibility and purpose.

  • Counties across the country collectively employ more than 3.5 million people. It’s not enough. Counties are short-staffed when it comes to sheriff’s deputies, paramedics, teachers, IT personnel, 911 operators — you name it. “It’s a struggle to get people to come back to work for our counties,” says Larry Johnson, a commissioner in DeKalb County, Ga. “We have faced workplace shortages, while the private sector has come back strong.”

    Hiring is tough all over. The job posting site Indeed released a report last week that found the number of job listings, while down from last year, remains 29 percent higher than before the pandemic. Nearly 5 percent of listings still offer signing bonuses. “Demand for workers in the U.S. remains strong by virtually any measure,” according to Indeed.

    For counties, finding workers can be especially tough. They have to compete with private-sector companies that are offering more money, as well as neighboring cities and counties that can sometimes afford to do the same. That’s at a time when baby boomers are retiring en masse, even as many Americans have not returned to work following the pandemic.

    Turnover rates in state and local governments are now twice as high as the average over the past couple of decades, in some places topping 25 percent. “It is our No. 1 [issue],” says Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties (NACo). “You can’t do anything without people.”

    During its recent annual meeting in Texas, NACo unveiled a portal to help member counties manage personnel. It offers templates for various policies such as telework, training and child care, while offering tips on matters from recruiting to onboarding. “It is a platform that is specifically for county government,” says Toni Holmes, executive director of the Department of Talent Management for Rockdale County, Ga. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

    It's Money That Matters

    During the NACo meeting, workforce challenges were a topic of near-constant conversation among county officials. Everyone seems to be handing out raises and bonuses. Johnson says that his county has offered raises of 6.2 percent for law enforcement and 4 percent for other employees, on top of bonuses.

    While other employees in Mercer County, W.Va., are given cost-of-living increases, sheriff’s deputies are paid according to tiers based on years of service, a formula that has led to substantial increases in recent years. “If you put an officer on the street making $35,000 to $40,000 a year, knowing they’re putting their lives on the line, it’s not fair,” says Commissioner Greg Puckett.

    Some counties are now offering longevity pay, a bonus for every year workers stay on the job. In essence, it’s a guaranteed annual raise. Hardy County, W.Va., now offers longevity pay, but it’s still tough to compete with jurisdictions across the border in Virginia that offer higher wages, says Commissioner Steven Schetrom II. The state Legislature is considering offering extra funding to border counties for just this reason, but it’s a tough sell because it wouldn’t help counties in other parts of the state.

    In addition to salary increases, some counties are looking at ways of enhancing their benefit packages. Winnebago County, Wis., raised hourly wages in its sheriff’s department to match local municipalities, while also instituting a policy to allow lateral transfer of benefit levels for experienced recruits from other counties. “We have seen an increase in applicants since then, but we’re still short-staffed,” says Supervisor Brian Defferding.

    Education vs. Experience

    Without sudden influxes of cash — and extra federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other COVID-19-era programs starting to run out — county officials know they can’t always spend their way to full staffing levels. Many are trying to find other ways to entice or retain workers.

    For one thing, a lot of places are revisiting their job descriptions. Some jobs do require college degrees, but a lot more call for them than are strictly necessary. When she served as director of economic equity and opportunity for Harris County, Texas, Diana Ramirez oversaw an effort to examine job descriptions to see if years of experience could substitute for educational requirements. “Lots of times, requiring a bachelor’s degree was just leaving a whole big segment of people out who had really good work experience,” Ramirez says.

    Now, as the interim county administrator, Ramirez is overseeing a compensation study to examine all the job titles and pay grades for positions earning less than $51,000, to make sure that lower-level employees are in the right jobs at the right pay grade.

    The public sector is not notable for its organizational flexibility, but counties should be thinking less about titles and more about skills, says Holmes, the Rockdale County talent director. Job descriptions should be re-examined to make sure they speak to the right combination of education and experience, while also making sure people possess the right skills to do the work. “A lot of time, people say, ‘I don’t want to train people, they’re going to leave,’” Holmes says. “The only thing worse than training an employee and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”

    A Sense of Purpose

    HR departments should be more proactive about succession planning, she says. They should consider conducting a census looking at workers who have been on the job for decades and may be thinking about retirement. Not all departments have a good sense of how many of their employees are already eligible to retire.

    The county workforce is aging and it’s a challenge to get younger workers to consider careers in government. In addition to trying to make salaries and benefits more competitive with the private sector, counties are helping current and potential employees connect the dots between doing a job and seeing results in the community. “You’re seeing counties really innovate with how they focus on their ‘why’ — what is the purpose of public service,” says Chase, the NACo director. “We’re starting to see some traction and really getting good, young, smart people in public service.”

    But none of these ideas will provide a silver bullet for counties hoping to bring aboard more people during a tight labor market. Travis County, Texas, has increased salaries for guards in its jail by more than 20 percent over the past couple of years. That’s allowed the county to continue to meet the state's minimum staffing standards, but even that hasn’t been slam dunk. “It’s a challenge,” says County Judge Andy Brown, “and it’s just one that I don’t see getting any easier as we go forward.”
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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