The data is alarming: Between fiscal 2019 and 2021, government job applications per job dropped 32% in states and localities, data shows. But there are strategies to counteract the trend.For some time, we’ve been writing about the difficulties states and localities face in their efforts to hire the best and brightest employees. But over the last couple of years, this long-term issue has accelerated dramatically, and coupled with a public sector retirement explosion, it has turned into a threat to governments’ ability to deliver services effectively, efficiently and on a timely basis.
The data is alarming. Between fiscal 2019 and 2021, applications per job dropped 32% in states and localities, according to information shared with Route Fifty by NEOGOV, a technology company that contracts with 2200 state and local governments across the United States for software application services, as well as other human resource technology. Shane Evangelist, CEO at NEOGOV, reflects on the long-term nature of workforce shortages and numbers he’s seeing now. “This is a significant drop-off and it’s snowballing,” he told us.
The drop in applications per job is particularly worrisome in some fields, according to NEOGOV data. In the last two years, it has fallen an average of 44% for health care support occupations; 43% for transportation and other related occupations and 40% for building grounds and maintenance. In a number of interviews with human resource professionals we’ve heard about relentless problems in getting qualified applicants in public safety and for 24-7 operations like prisons, mental health institutes or long-term care facilities.
These shortages aren’t going unnoticed. In September, for example, the National Association of State Treasurers issued a workforce study about finance positions that pointed to worrisome reports of a “lack of applications for job postings, especially for entry level positions.”
At the National Association of Procurement Officials, a blog post at the end of August noted that the membership organization was hearing the words “desperate, critical, difficult, frustrating, unfeasible and demoralizing” from procurement officials describing the employment challenges.
A dearth of applicants is afflicting the private sector as well, but governments find it far more difficult than their corporate counterparts to adjust salaries, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage. “Fast food outlets are offering more money than we’re offering our Certified Nursing Assistants,” says Clara Woodmansee, director of Strategic HR Consulting for Colorado.
Declining application numbers would be hard enough to deal with if states and localities had the luxury of time to think and consider solutions. But the pressure is on now, and the resources to deal with the drop-off in applications are in increasingly short supply. “Our recruitment staff was halved due to retirement and it has been challenging getting back up to speed,” says Anna Morgan, a recruiter for Portland, Oregon. “Our workload has doubled in the meantime.
Even though there are still government job applications coming in, the precarious drop in their number carries a variety of unfortunate side effects. For example, according to Evangelist, NEOGOV is “hearing that there’s a lower-quality applicant pool.” That’s not a surprise. In a job market in which everyone is competing for fewer people, those that are more qualified have more options and get selected out of the pool more quickly.
With the disruptions caused by the pandemic continuing, it’s too soon to gauge the full impact on state and local government staff capacity or the delivery of services. But the news is increasingly full of evidence of service reductions and other problems that stem from lack of available staff.
In Orangeburg, South Carolina, for example, the recycling program was suspended in early October due to the shortage of drivers in a sanitation staff that needs 11 employees to run and was down to five. Similarly, in Jacksonville, Florida, staffing problems have caused trouble in garbage pickup. Shortages of skilled trade workers in San Jose, California, and many other places, have led to soaring overtime.
Strategies to Counteract the Falloff
Can states and local governments counter the falloff in applications? It’s not easy, but there are plausible strategies. An online forum set up by the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, for example, has been discussing ideas like referral bonuses, new recruiting techniques, internships and additional benefits such as tuition assistance for employees.
Technology can help as well. NEOGOV, for instance, has introduced a customer relationship management tool so that states and local governments can better track the people who have applied unsuccessfully and recontact them when new job openings appear. The idea is to mine the data to keep potentially qualified applicants engaged. That tool has proven very useful in Portland, Oregon, where it has helped hiring managers stay in close touch with unsuccessful job applicants who might better fit other positions in the future.
Pennsylvania, similarly, has focused on providing immediate feedback to applicants, keeping in close touch with them and communicating about the variety of jobs available if one application doesn’t work out. It recently added six weeks of paid parental leave and makes sure that potential employees know all about the state’s dental, orthodontic and vision benefits, in addition to more traditional health insurance. “We’re getting the word out in a more intentional way,” says V. Reid Walsh, deputy secretary for human resources and management, a department which has created a video to communicate the total reward package of working for the state.
Another innovation in Pennsylvania hiring has been the addition of job fairs that are specifically placed at facilities for which finding employees has been difficult—such as often remote prisons. Staff are on hand to conduct interviews, which provides opportunities to grab good applicants without delay. “Making conditional job offers on the spot helps,” says Walsh. “This is a model that we’re now pushing across the enterprise from a centralized perspective.”
Another key, says Colorado’s Woodmansee, is focusing on existing employees and what they value in a job’s structure and culture—like flexible scheduling, help with child care or the provision of easy inexpensive access to meals. This can be done through focus groups or still rare “stay interviews”, in which employees are asked what’s keeping them in their positions (as opposed to exit interviews, which focus on why they’re leaving).
“We can imagine all day long what someone wants, but we should start by asking them,” says Woodmansee. “We don’t know what we’ll find, but we do know that we should start by asking.”