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Local Governments Search for Answers to Hiring Challenges

Cities and counties are still struggling to regain pre-pandemic employment levels. New approaches to hiring and retention could help fill the gap.

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Fort Lauderdale has reached out nationally to attract workers.
(City of Fort Lauderdale)
Nonfarm employment increased by more than 400,000 in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The total number employed reached over 151 million, close to the level seen in February 2020. But state and local governments continue to add workers at a much slower rate and have almost 700,000 fewer workers than before COVID-19 shutdowns.

There are more state and local government job openings than at any time in well over a decade, says Joshua Franzel, managing director of the MissionSquare Research Institute. The sector’s quit rate is also the highest it’s been over that time period.

Tight budgets are not the barrier. An analysis published this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that in 2021, states reported the greatest annual increase in leftover dollars in general funds in 21 years. Their collective rainy day funds increased 50 percent in 2021.

“Tax revenues and fee revenues are very healthy for many governments — they have the ability to hire,” says Franzel. “On top of that, they have these two tranches of federal funds.”

Excess job openings are not unique to the government sector; according to a report just released by BLS, the 11.5 million job openings at the end of March were the most since December 2020. But it’s the wrong time for the public sector to be short-handed.

Routine services that were taken for granted before COVID-19 are essential to a complete recovery, from education and transportation to public health and safety. Beyond this, hundreds of billions of federal dollars have been allocated to states with the expectation that they will be used to “build back better,” foster an era of equity, limit climate impacts and accomplish historic improvements in infrastructure.

Government employers recognize that hiring practices that worked in the past aren’t enough at this time of heightened expectations and competition. The pressure is stimulating innovation.
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State and local employment is recovering but is further from pre-pandemic numbers than overall employment. (Numbers are seasonally adjusted.)

A Wider Net

Anil Comelo, the interim deputy city manager for Richmond, Calif., manages human resources, finance and IT for the city that has a job vacancy rate of 18 percent.

Comelo sees a combination of demographic, economic and social challenges. Unprecedented economic growth in recent years has created more opportunities for high school and college graduates to find high-paying jobs. A smaller cohort of Gen Xers is contributing to a shortage of mid-level workers who can assume leadership roles.
Anil Comelo - Director of Human Resources, City of Oakland
Anil Comel: "You have to be more creative in finding candidates — as opposed to being passive, we have to be more active in soliciting."
(City of Richmond)

Moreover, he says, the public sector hasn’t really grappled with the increasing demand from employees to work from home. It needs to think differently, casting a wider net.

Public-sector leaders need to mimic the private sector and consider hiring employees who work outside their geographic area, says Comelo. “There’s no reason engineering work cannot be done by staff in Texas — or India.”

Shifting the mix of salary and benefits is another possibility. A better salary may be more attractive to a 20-year-old than a pension.

“We need to be nimble in hiring and promotional processes,” he says. “Like the private sector, we need to promote on the basis of outcomes, identify high performers and keep them motivated and engaged by giving them challenging projects.”

City recruiters have learned to use LinkedIn and alumni networks for recruitment, with good results. Advertisements for an engineering job emphasized both its challenges and its contribution to the well-being of the community.

“As we market for every position, we are trying to make that link,” says Comelo.
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Billboards in Chicago and Times Square enabled Ft. Lauderdale to fill law enforcement positions.
(City of Fort Lauderdale)

Wish You Were Here

Anthony Roberts, assistant director of human resources for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., knows what it means to expand the horizons of recruitment. Toward the end of 2021, the city put up a billboard in Chicago to attract candidates for certified police officer jobs.

The billboard, placed on a major route into the city and near Chicago precincts for 90 days, featured a police car on a sun-kissed beach and the message, “Wish You Were Here!” It yielded 500 applicants for the positions. Another billboard was placed in Times Square.

“We got enough applicants to more than fill the positions we had,” says Roberts.

The city is now planning a national campaign promoting general employment for the city, with themes along the lines of “You love playing here, you love visiting here. Love working here.”

To support retention, the city is working department by department to offer greater flexibility regarding shifts, work schedules and remote work. Competition for skilled trades is tough, Roberts says, and is forcing a hard look at salary ranges.

As another recruitment strategy, the city switched from a 401k benefit plan to the state pension program to attract workers reluctant to leave such programs. “A lot of people who turned us down previously have made the decision to come over,” says Roberts.
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Adams Co. website hiring page promoting its collective bargaining agreement.
(Adams Co.)

Giving Workers a Voice

Unions can be a bridge between public-sector workers and their managers, addressing difficult issues individuals might be reluctant to raise for fear of reprisal. Heather Burke, a child welfare worker in Adams County, Colo., is president of AFSCME Local 3927.

The union began contract negotiations just before the pandemic, and the process took 18 months. When the agreement was signed, it had a huge impact on employee morale, says Burke.

“We’ve been able to have our voices heard,” she says. “That eliminates a lot of frustration and reduces some of the burnout.”

The 800 members of Local 3927 provide services including child welfare, community support, food stamps, child-care assistance and adult protection. One big request that had been repeatedly denied was for the county to provide cellphones so service workers could communicate from the field without being obliged to share personal phone numbers with clients.

The union voice was strong enough to overcome objections to this expense. “The county cellphone has been really nice because it allows a worker to have a work/life balance,” says Burke. “We don’t have our community texting us at 2 a.m., and we don’t have to worry about getting back to our desk to hear voicemails if we’re out in the field.” The union was also able to resolve long-standing concerns about worker safety during tense interactions with clients.

Colorado has a crisis-level shortage of workers, says Burke, and the union has eased strain on those doing extra work to fill the gaps. “It’s been able to retain workers because they’re able to sit down and talk when they’re frustrated and not fear retaliation.”

Adams County now includes information about the collective bargaining agreement in the “Employment Opportunities” section of its website. A bill currently before the Colorado Legislature, SB22-230, would extend collective bargaining rights to more than 37,000 county employees. It passed the Senate on April 25.

Many frontline workers are underpaid.

Force Multipliers

As in other communities, Tansy Howard, the assistant city manager for Raleigh, N.C., has found recruitment for public safety positions to be especially difficult. “We’re doing pretty aggressive sign-on bonuses, we’re providing compensation for people that make referrals that result in a hire – practices that have been used in the private sector for a long time but are not as common in the public sector.”

Partnerships with local universities have helped create pipelines for workers in building trades, and the city provides training and certification bonuses to encourage workers hired for entry-level positions to gain new skills. Students who participate in a Digital Connectors program providing technology and leadership training, or summer youth programs, gravitate to city jobs.

“We’re trying to find force multipliers in the community,” says Howard. “It’s a doubly hard position to go into a tough labor market with more vacancies than you usually have.”

Managing Public Perception

Government’s ability to accommodate job seekers who want to work remotely isn’t necessarily based on concerns that they won’t be productive. “I have spoken to many local governments who would love to make the decision that employees can work remotely,” says Priscilla Wilson, chief people officer for the International City/County Management Association.

Pre-pandemic, she says, the public perception was that a full complement of staff needed to be present for government offices to get their work done. “The question is, how do we educate our citizenry that their needs will be met, or exceeded, with a hybrid workforce?”

If inability to offer remote positions is making government recruitment difficult, one way to help break the dam open would be for public information officers to market the achievements of nontraditional work arrangements. “This can be done in public forums, through city council meetings,” says Wilson.

Much has been made of the “gray tsunami” and it’s eroding effect on the workforce, but Wilson sees potential for the flow to move the other way. “Many individuals retired from the workforce during the pandemic, but I would dare say many are interested in doing part-time work to stay busy and keep their minds active.”

The times call for hiring innovation, she says, from paid internships to partnerships with colleges serving students from communities underrepresented in the government workforce.

The pandemic’s disruption of personal and professional lives has had lingering effects on the mental state of many workers. An important retention strategy, Wilson believes, is to give managers training enabling them to recognize an overwhelmed worker, and tools to respond with empathy.

The factors contributing to hiring challenges that city managers and state officials face are varied and complex. “It's not a monolithic situation,” says MissionSquare’s Franzel.

Labor supply and demand might match in a major metropolitan area, he says. “But when you look at certain rural areas, they’re having a harder time filling positions than other sections of the country; there’s a geographic component to this as well.”

Some states are getting out in front of the situation by reconsidering where and how work can be done. Others are exploring changes in pay structure and whether statutes need to be changed to facilitate them. Some are offering one-time bonuses while they work through these issues.

“We’re in the middle of a long recovery,” says Franzel. “The key word is flexibility.”
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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