Public Sector Recruiting: Bouncing Back After a Tumultuous Year?

by Libby Bevin on January 25, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves around the world in 2020, and one of the major effects was on employment, in both the private and public sector. Due to the business closures brought on by the enforced lockdown and the payroll freezes, many news sources including the Wall Street Journal describe the “economic downturn” of the COVID-19 pandemic as the worst recession since the Great Depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929. In fact, the national unemployment rate rose from 4.5% in March 2020 -- close to the record low --  to a record high of 14.7% just one month later (Bureau of Labor Statistics). 

However, despite still being in the midst of the pandemic, we have seen a marked recovery in the employment rate. By the last week of December 2020, the unemployment rate had decreased to 6.7% and is expected to continue to improve. But what does this mean for public sector recruiting? 

Throughout the pandemic, employees were let go at many government agencies where job security has long been a leading value proposition, and many hiring budgets were frozen. But as organizations have found ways to resume operations under new circumstances, settle into remote work, and put safety measures in place, the freeze is thawing. In the public sector specifically, we are seeing a recovery in recruitment, which we should acknowledge with a degree of cautious optimism. 

We analyzed millions of the public sector applications, job postings, applications per job, job offers, and hires that were made each week of 2020. Now we’ll compare those numbers to the data from 2019 to see the real effect of 2020 on public sector recruiting. 

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In the weeks prior to March 2020 the leading job board for the public sector, GovernmentJobs, saw approximately 42,000 job postings published per week. This number plummeted in the second week of March when the pandemic caused the shutdown in the US, but didn’t reach its low point until the second week of May, when only 26,500 job openings were posted. This was a 32% decrease compared to the prior year. The number of jobs posted had a slow recovery throughout the year, but increased to 33,000 by the penultimate week of the year, just 5,500 shy of the same week in 2019.

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Surprisingly, despite the rapid rise of unemployment, the number of applications submitted per week decreased rapidly. The first week of March 2020 saw 250,000 public sector applications submitted, the same as 2019. However, by the end of the month, the number of applications decreased to 146,000 and continued to decline until it reached a low of 110,000 in mid-April. Throughout the second half of the year, the number of applications slowly increased and 2020 ended only about 25,000 applications per week short of 2019.

The rapid decline of applications at the beginning of the pandemic begs the question: why did the unemployed shy away from sending in applications as more and more people were becoming unemployed? Perhaps they did not want to risk being in an office environment during the pandemic, they had to be a caretaker to children or loved ones, or, perhaps, they didn’t realize organizations were still hiring. Regardless of the reason, the decline in applicants meant the average number of applicants per job also decreased.

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As fewer jobs were posted and less applications were submitted, the average number of applications per job decreased by 40% in March 2020 compared to the same month the prior year, to just 3.6 applications per job. Compared to January 2020, that number had decreased by 48%. 

While this number steadily increased in the second half of the year and ended up only one applicant per job shy of 2019’s number, public sector applications per job are still significantly lower than necessary. Public sector positions need 25.2 applications to ensure a qualified candidate is in the applicant pool. With only 5.8 applications per job in early January 2021, the public sector must attract more applicants to reach the target number of applications per job.

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The metrics for 2020 job offers and hires made per week, compared to 2019, are very similar. Both saw a drop in mid-March 2020, but slowly recovered throughout the year. Job offers per week dropped from approximately 11,000 to 6,000 in March 2020, while hires per week saw a 45% drop from 9,000 to 5,000. While 2020 didn’t see the huge spike in job offers and hires at the end of July like 2019 did, 2020s job offers and hires steadily increased back to 6,800 hires just before the holidays. 

Screen Shot 2021-01-07 at 7.52.46 PMAlthough the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the positive trend in public sector recruiting bodes well for continued improvement in 2021.

The biggest lesson in this data? In an economy where there’s an overabundance of qualified candidates looking for work, the public sector can’t assume they’ll be the recipient of excess talent. Promoting new job openings, rewriting job descriptions to attract applicants, and reducing time-to-hire to keep qualified candidates engaged with the recruiting process are proving to be more important than ever.

Libby Bevin

Libby Bevin is a content writer and editor for NEOGOV. Libby earned a Master of Arts in English Literature and Language from Wake Forest University and a Bachelor of Arts in English and History from Stetson University. Contact Libby at lbevin@neogov.net.