Engage with the people where they are
For governments to remain sustainable, they must remain competitive in the constantly changing labor marketplace. This means attention must be paid to employee retention practices and a priority must be placed on attracting new talent — all while keeping an eye on what the private sector is doing so they don’t fall behind. It’s a complicated task with lots of moving parts to hire bright people, keep them engaged and incentivize them to not leave for greener pastures.
Frankly, it’s no longer enough to use help wanted ads in the local paper, pick someone from a stack of resumes, offer a standard salary and benefits and hope they’ll remain working in their department until they retire. To compete effectively in the labor market, governments need to take advantage of new forms of communication, promote their brands in creative ways, aggressively recruit from younger, more diverse talent pools and clearly demonstrate the value of a job in the public sector beyond simply earning a paycheck.
A Rubix Cube of problems
For a decade, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE) has been conducting surveys on workforce issues facing state and local government employers in cooperation with the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and the National Association of State Personnel Executives.
Joshua Franzel, president and CEO of SLGE, says the past 10 years have been a time of significant changes for government workforces. “A lot of challenges have presented themselves for states and localities from a growth and retention perspective,” he says. “There have been years of wage stagnation… you have a situation [where] a lot of state and local workers have either received no pay increases over a long period of time or pay increases that haven’t held up with inflation.” He goes on to say many state and local agencies have been forced to make changes to their pensions and benefits packages, shifting costs from the employer to the employee. Add to this the need for agencies to recruit talented and in some cases highly skilled employees in the face of an aging, rapidly retiring core workforce from a labor market with less than 3 percent unemployment. “It’s a real Rubik’s Cube of problems,” he says.
It’s not a surprise the 2018 report also showed agencies were reporting large numbers of hard-to-fill positions, and workforce-related concerns were pervasive. Of their priorities, 82 percent reported requirement and retention were their top priorities with employee morale following close behind at 80 percent. For comparison, in 2012, those numbers were 39 and 67 percent respectively.
So how are local governments filling these vacated positions? Some are getting creative.
Flexible work, sharing staff
The proliferation of new telecommunications technologies has broken down the walls of the traditional office. Not every job now needs to be a full-time, in-office position, and governments are taking advantage of this. The so-called gig-economy has come to the public sector, and while it’s not the Uber of government, it’s similar.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are five generalizable characteristics of gig workers: They are self-employed and performing single projects or tasks on demand, they are providing labor services; they are working for pay (not providing services in-kind); they are obtaining work or performing services either offline or online through applications or websites; and they are doing this work either part- or full-time.
These alternative employment arrangements lend themselves particularly well to certain types of jobs. According to SLGE, the gig services used mostly by local governments include office and administrative work, maintenance and labor, accounting, grounds clearing, recreational programs and IT support. As the ideas of traditional, 9 to 5 work become less rigid and more people are finding themselves in decentralized roles, these gig workers will likely become more commonplace.
Staff sharing is another creative solution. Franzel says SLGE has a research project going on right now looking at how agencies are sharing personnel across jurisdictional lines. “If you step back and look at why this is happening, in many instances a community is required to provide services, but they’re having a hard time recruiting an individual with certain skill sets or certain levels of education,” he says.
“Even if you could, a lot of these communities don’t need a full-time employee to do that or afford a full-time employee to do that.” The next best thing he says is to share a professional among several jurisdictions. However, it’s important to consider the implications of this in terms of benefits and compensation. If the cost burden is shared correctly, though, it can be a win-win situation.
However, outside-the-box staffing solutions may not be able to address one of the most pressing local government workforce issues which pose an existential threat to many departments.
Battening down for the silver tsunami
This problem can’t be discussed without mentioning the so-called Silver Tsunami- or the mass exodus of aging Baby Boomers from the workforce. During the Great Recession, many public-sector retirement-eligible individuals were postponing their retirements due to economic uncertainty, but now that the economy has rebounded, we’ve seen more and more retirement-eligible workers exit their positions, taking their skills and institutional knowledge with them.
The number of governments reporting their retirements were higher than the year before has steadily increased, Franzel says. According to an SLGE report, “fewer public sector employees are postponing retirement. While 44 percent of respondents in 2009 reported plans to postpone their retirement, this percentage has steadily declined, with only 21 percent of respondents reporting plans to postpone retirement in 2018.”
The results of this workforce event horizon have been multifaceted. Most obviously, more local governments are hiring to replace these vacancies; however, many are making alterations to their pension programs to make it more attractive for retired workers to continue on in their positions in limited capacities, or to find a similar position elsewhere.
This is a difficult challenge to manage, Franzel says. State and local employers face the prospect of a significant shortage of skilled and experienced workers needed for a variety of professions, and these roles are increasingly difficult to fill. To address this, they need to consider different labor markets – the recently retired being one of them.
However, this problem won’t be completely solved by allowing older workers to continue their careers into perpetuity. The public sector needs to make itself attractive to new demographics.
The new face of government
A lack of foresight has plagued the public sector for many years, Kent Wyatt, a co-founder of Engaging Local Government Leaders, says. “For a good decade or two, we as a profession didn’t think about advancing the next generation,” he explains. “For the longest while, quite honestly there was little of substance being done.”
Even with traditional internship programs and fellowships, Wyatt says, it was often difficult for young people to feel engaged in the workforce and the overall mission of their department. They were given menial tasks and not challenged. “It’s tough to retain people when their experience with government is not positive,” he says.
This gets to the root of a significant generational issue. Young people, for the most part, more than pay and benefits, they are looking for a purpose. They want to work at an organization where they understand how they fit into the greater mission, and that mission is one they can be proud of, Wyatt says. However, he says it’s not enough to simply rely on the “public servant” moniker.
“I think we’ve relied too much on the attitude of, “well, we’re public servants,” Wyatt explains. “I don’t think that resonates with people, and it might come off a little snobbish. While it’s true in a lot of respects, I don’t think it’s easy for a management analyst or utility worker to come in and realize and feel that way. I think it’s lazy.”
Instead, Wyatt would like to see more local government – and departments within those governments – answer the question “what is my purpose?” For a meaningful recruitment strategy, agencies have to make the argument for why people should come work for them. This isn’t about money or benefits, it’s about an overall specific mission. In a way, when it comes to attracting new talent, governments can’t think of themselves any differently than a local business would, he says.
Governments also need to realize they are in direct competition now with the private sector entities in their communities. “This is another area where we’ve been blinded by our purpose,” Wyatt says. “We can’t say “we serve the public so of course people will want to work for our organization.” Local governments need to distinguish themselves and make it attractive to join their workforces. Things like transit passes, flexible schedules, paid family leave and even gym memberships can go a long way in making an agency unique. “Fringe benefits do come into play here,” he says.
Additionally, governments need to look beyond traditional outreach methods to more diverse institutions in their communities. For most young people, the government seems like a far-removed, impersonal entity. “We really wait until people are in a Masters of Public Administration program to recruit them,” Wyatt says. “That’s almost pointless – if they’re in an MPA program they were going to come to you anyway.”
Wyatt suggests reaching out to undergraduate institutions, community colleges and high schools – particularly in underrepresented and underserved communities.
If governments can teach these young people about these career paths early, and they’re more likely to peruse them later. “There are ways we can be more proactive,” he says. “We have to do more to attract from communities who really have incredible skillsets and insight that we’ve neglected for way too long.”
Ultimately, this is all about finding and communicating an identity, Wyatt says. Some cities are hiring professionals to do exactly that.
The art of storytelling
Aaron Foley started his career as a journalist working in Detroit. He’s now that city’s chief storyteller. The position, he says, is an interesting one.
As he explains it, it’s a hybrid position that’s part communications director, videographer, social media manager and press secretary. “Instead of just repeating press releases, what I try to do is put a human face on the things going on in the city,” he says. Instead of just saying “here’s a job fair,” his team will talk to someone who has been to a job fair and understand how that person received employment, he explains. They’ll package and produce this message to make it appealing and sharable through popular social media channels and by doing so, humanize the city and its services.
What does this have to employee recruitment? Foley says the humanity his stories provide is an important element in getting people excited about the government and its resources – which at times remains behind the preverbal curtain. By getting people to engage with the government in a personal way, they are much more likely to become interested in a public-sector career.
One example, he says, was telling the story of the Grow Detroit’s Young Talent program, a citywide summer jobs program that employs young adults between the ages of 14 and 24. Rather than simply sharing the details about the program, Foley says he produced a day-in-the-life profile of an alumna of the program who is now a city employee.
The video gained traction far more than the more traditional materials the city was putting out.
“That’s how we were able to get more people to sign up for the young talent program at a faster rate this year than we have in years past,” Foley says. “The information got out there in a different way – you actually got to see from the perspective of someone who went through the program. That’s how we’re not only thinking about workforce development strategy but [promoting other programs] as well.”
If you’re looking to attract talent from different, younger, more diverse groups of people, storytelling in this way is invaluable, but what can you do without a dedicated storyteller or even a full-time HR staff? Not every city has the same resources, but that doesn’t mean they have to stick to the traditional methods of recruitment and retention. Wyatt says in the absence of dedicated staff, find one individual who is a great communicator that can champion your organization in the labor market. Get started with social media and targeted marketing. Get out more into the community. Engage with the people where they are.