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Honolulu Faces Worker Shortage as Retirements, Vacancies Soar

Officials are worried the city could lose 24 percent of its current workforce by mid-2022. Competition from the private sector has hurt recruitment, especially for specialized fields, such as engineering.

(TNS) — The city could be looking at a 24 percent loss in its current workforce by mid-2022 as more and more employees become eligible for retirement and vacancies go unfilled.

The Department of Facility Maintenance alone is facing a possible 46 percent reduction in staff when considering potential retirements and vacancies, second only to the Department of Land Management, which could possibly lose 57 percent of its staff, according to the city's Human Resources Department.

"It's scary, downright scary to think about, " said City Council Chairman Tommy Waters.

Councilman Calvin Say echoed Waters concerns.

"Another big issue that's going to be occurring very shortly in the next decade is the Department of Design and Construction. These are all of our engineers and architects, federal professional services that do all of our blueprints for our city and county projects, " he said.

Say explained that he began looking into the situation after hearing complaints from constituents about slow service from government agencies.

Another consequence to a depleted city workforce is the effect it has on the remaining employees, according to Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira.

"It is a tremendous morale killer, " he said. "Employees complain to us about how busy things are, how they're forced to do the work of two, three people, if not more."

He said it can become a vicious cycle in which overtaxed city workers struggle to provide services to the public, and customers in turn take their frustrations out on city workers who become more overwhelmed and quit, further exacerbating the workforce shortage.

The median age of the city's 8,537 employees is 46. However, for the departments facing the highest percentages of possible losses, which includes the Department of Design and Construction, the median age is 55—the age at which city workers are eligible for retirement.

Perreira explained there's a gap in the government workforce between a growing number of younger employees and the significant cohort of workers nearing retirement age. He attributed that to competition from the private sector for experienced employees in that middle gap group.

Government jobs at one time were coveted for their attractive pay and benefits, he said, but that is no longer the case. Private-sector companies have been consistently "very aggressive in ensuring that their pay and benefit packages are competitive, " while also offering perks such as profit-sharing and continuing education, as well as more opportunities for career advancement.

"Their retention efforts are there because they wish to retain the capable workforce because turnover costs money and it creates different problems. Government has been slow to that party, " Perreira said.

One example is the city's difficulty in recruiting and retaining engineers.

"The city pays ... somewhere between $40,000 and maybe $60,000 as an entry-level engineer, " said University of Hawaii Assistant Dean of Engineering Song Choi. "With the booming real estate, especially with all the condo buildings and all that construction, a graduating 22-to 23-year-old engineer can make as much as $60,000 to $120,000 in the private industry.

"Now, you do the math, but last time I checked, that's like double."

Choi said private companies often encourage younger employees to obtain a professional engineering license, which can yield higher pay and a greater level of expertise, and some even pay for graduate studies.

"There has to be something that is very individual, incentive-driven where you are really telling them, 'Stay and you will be happy, '" he said. "Not only the, 'Oh, yeah, you can retire. We got all these benefits.'"

Perreira said that even though the city does have great retirement benefits, that may not be a priority for younger employees.

"At their age in their early 20s, they're not looking at a retirement plan as an incentive to join an employer. It's after several years on the job, then that retirement plan takes on greater importance, " he said.

"They're looking at, 'I'd love to have subsidized child care options, ' or 'I need different kinds of flexibility on my job that maybe a private employer is willing to provide.'"

Beyond retirement benefits, the city also offers generous vacation leave, Perreira said. "One of the things that the city, all government in Hawaii has through our contracts, is a liberal vacation policy from the beginning of hire, " he said.

In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Mayor Rick Blangiardi emphasized the need to make city government an attractive place to work and to seek qualified employees despite a hiring freeze put in place to help alleviate the economic impacts of COVID-19.

"I've told all of our department heads, even though we have a hiring freeze, I do not want you to stop recruiting. If we find somebody who's really good, we'll figure out a way to get them on board, " he said.

Waters pointed to the Pookela Fellows program that pairs local college students with engineers, city planners and other workers in hard-to-fill positions.

"They really enjoyed their experience. And those are the folks that you have got a really good shot of hiring them, " he said.

Since 2008, about 31 Pookela fellows transitioned into some form of city employment.

Blangiardi said another attractive aspect of working for the city that should be highlighted is the value of public service.

"There is a lot of pride in working for a city, the place that you live, and how that connects with your whole life, " he said.
"I think many people, they love that feeling that they work and live in a city, that each and every day they get to do something for other people."

(c)2021 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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