Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Public-Sector Workforce Returns to Pre-Pandemic Levels, but Gaps Persist

After shedding nearly 1 million jobs, staffing levels are now higher than at the start of 2020. But severe shortages remain in several fields such as nursing, public safety and education.

1208_Milwaukee 164.jpg
A police officer in Milwaukee checks his laptop for prior criminal histories.
(David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • There are more state and local workers now than at the start of the pandemic.

  • However, several job categories remain difficult to fill due to a dramatic drop in the workforce pool.

  • Governments are growing more concerned with skills and training.

  • When one nurse is late for their shift or calls out sick, other nurses have to stay later and work longer. Recruiting nurses is always a challenge — unemployment in the field is less than 2 percent — but the task was made more difficult by the loss of 100,000 nurses who left the workforce during the pandemic.

    Total employment in the public sector has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels. Last year saw 581,000 additional hires at the state and local levels, which was more than double the amount in 2022, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). By the end of 2023, there were 22,000 more public-sector jobs than in February 2020, just before the pandemic took its toll.

    Nevertheless, there are several job categories within the public sector that remain difficult to fill. Health, public safety and education are three major areas still seeing shortages. Florida is seeing a shortage of firefighters statewide, with the candidate pool shrinking significantly. Minneapolis has just invested $1 million into recruiting new police officers and 911 operators, with Chief Brian O’Hara noting that the department has had to “rely more and more on mandatory overtime.” Meanwhile, schools around the country are reporting more vacancies.

    “In school districts, we hear a lot about how a school might have all their teaching positions filled but have no substitutes,” says Sara Hinkley, program director of an education center at the University of California, Berkeley. “So that means when teachers are out sick, their class is going to be combined with another class, which means probably they're going to the gym and playing dodgeball instead of teachers trying to teach math to 60 kids.”

    Hinkley says local governments in general don’t have enough staffing. She points to permits and business inspections as areas where vacancies are translating into constituent complaints.

    So why are some agencies struggling to hire and retain workers even as employment numbers have increased? The workforce pool has dropped dramatically since 2020. Even with attempts to bring in younger workers or open the pool to workers with relevant skills instead of a four-year degree, many public-sector employers are struggling to find qualified applicants. Lee Saunders, the president of AFSCME, says that education about what jobs are available in the public sector and what skills they require will be key to filling these vacancies. “We also are working with employers on setting up more apprenticeship programs,” Saunders says, “so that we can train people for the jobs that need to be filled.”

    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
    From Our Partners