Grappling With the Public Sector Workforce Shortage Crush

by REPUBLISHED from ROUTE FIFTY on November 30, 2021

When positions aren’t appealing to applicants, sometimes the jobs need to be changed, government hiring officials say.

This fall, as Jefferson County, Colorado prepared for the first snowfalls of the season, residents were notified that they shouldn’t expect the usual speed of snow removal. 

“We’re down approximately thirty snowplow drivers,” says Jennifer Fairweather, human resources director there. “We haven’t had the first snow yet, but we know there are some things we just won’t be able to do.”

We’ve written in the past about the decline in job applications, an explosion in public sector retirements, and escalating turnover rates that emanate from pandemic-fostered burnout. But these trends aren’t just an issue for the human resources officials in governments that are trying to stay fully staffed–they have real world ramifications for people in many states and localities.  

The Parks and Recreation program in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for example, recently shut down 14 child care programs because of its worker shortage. In early November, meanwhile, a statewide shortage of substitute teachers and other staff led to school cancellations in Seattle and Denver.  

Elsewhere, staff shortages are forcing the curtailment of bus and subway routes and cutbacks in sanitation and recycling schedules. In coming months as money begins to flow from the $1.75 trillion infrastructure bill, its implementation will likely be hindered by shortages in construction workers, engineers, maintenance employees, skilled trade workers and drivers.

There are no easy solutions available to this manpower shortage and undertaking them without advance consideration can wind up being a waste of time and money.  

For example, one of the first thoughts that can come to the minds of HR officials is to advertise more heavily for more applicants. But before doing so, they should look at a piece of data called the “conversion rate,” the relationship between the number of potential applicants who look at a job posting, and the number who actually apply. A study conducted a year ago by the technology company NEOGOV, revealed that for some public sector jobs with a very low conversion rate —under 1%—putting more money into advertising won’t really help. Those jobs—about a third of the 86,441 positions it analyzed, across 62,380 job classes, need to be restructured in some way, says Shane Evangelist, the CEO of NEOGOV.

Clearly, advertising isn’t going to be of much use when the jobs themselves aren’t sufficiently appealing to attract new candidates. It doesn’t pay either, to keep posting a job that isn’t getting response, as old unfilled openings begin to look undesirable simply because they’ve remained empty—just like houses that have been on the market too long.  

Employing More Aggressive Actions

Addressing the problem of unappealing jobs requires more aggressive actions. This may include such steps as shifting the nature of the jobs themselves by merging or eliminating positions; using technology more effectively, or splitting up job duties among other staff, with targeted attention to special compensation that helps to cut back on turnover. 

This is an approach that while difficult has an appeal to many HR officials. In Arizona, human resource manager Colleen McManus sees the potential for many less-appealing jobs to be altered. “I think there’s room for changes if we’d be willing to think outside the box,” she says. 

One of the clear-cut ways to make jobs more attractive to applicants is by providing compensation increases where that’s affordable. This is of particular importance for low-paying jobs in which the public sector is competing with private sector alternatives like fast food restaurants that provide higher wages. 

When asked to list employer actions that would be most helpful to them, addressing compensation was the top answer suggested by public sector employees in the MissionSquare Research Institute’s May 2021 survey of public sector employees. The second was creating flexible work arrangements that provide the capacity to deal with personal and child-care needs—core elements of the now often-lauded work life balance.

The creation of new career paths can also help. If applicants think a job as a corrections officer, for example, means they’ll always be working in the prison system, that can leave them feeling locked into a future they don’t like. But the public sector offers a wide variety of alternatives, and there’s no reason why a position in one department can’t lead to a job in another. Providing different paths of professional growth can be a particularly strong lure for young people who aren’t sure exactly what they want to be doing in three or five years. 

In Pennsylvania, for example, the centralization of human resource functions several years ago helped lead to the creation of a new unit that is focused on managing job standards that describe the work at different levels across the enterprise.

The unit uses "job studies" to fully develop the career path from entry to manager level. This heightens the state's ability to help applicants and current employees scope out future options not just in one agency or job group, but across Pennsylvania government. The first significant studies focused on clerical and procurement positions, and the most recent centers on trades and maintenance jobs and is currently ongoing.

For job applicants, says Carol Noll, who manages the Bureau of Organization Management, "it's really important for applicants to see the career paths the commonwealth has to offer and for current employees to understand that they're performing work that provides a career path and that this isn't a dead-end position."

Altering the Work Environment

Another option to making jobs more attractive is altering the environment in which they are performed, a move that is increasingly taking the form of hybrid work in which some time is spent at home and some in a more formal office environment. This kind of arrangement became commonplace when Covid-19 hit, but even as the pandemic dissipates in the future, it’s a notion that seems to work well. 

One state that grabbed onto this idea a number of years before the pandemic was Tennessee, which began to encourage hybrid remote work through its Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS) about six years ago. That program redesigns central office space to reduce the number of personal offices in favor of different kinds of communal space, with employees who are able to telework coming to a central office several days a week and otherwise working at home or in the field.

In the current difficult job market, officials clearly see the advantage that this gives in hiring. “AWS has been critical to us in helping recruit and retain people,” says Christi Branscom, Commissioner of the Department of General Services in Tennessee. “It gives us an advantage over companies that are not offering a hybrid-work environment.”

Jefferson County has also seen the advantage of hybrid work arrangements and scheduling flexibility, following a change that took effect in 2020 and moved the county to a four-day work week, in which most offices are closed on Fridays.  Employees still work 40 hours, but where possible, and with supervisory approval, they can create their own schedules. They can also choose to reduce their work schedule to 32 hours a week, with a proportionate cut in pay, with manager approval.

Of course, hybrid work doesn’t come naturally for jobs that require working in the field, like law enforcement, and flexible scheduling may also be difficult for some positions in 24/7 operations. But for many positions, both can be a boon to recruitment. “In talking with candidates, these initiatives have definitely helped us,” says Fairweather. “People will say they really appreciate that we offer remote work and a four-day work week.”

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