State, local governments struggle to hire amid job market shifts A combination of factors has kept public-sector employment below pre-pandemic levels, but experts say governments can offer candidates a unique proposition.

 The Great Resignation is impacting the public sector as well as the private sector, and state and local governments within the U.S. continue to struggle to find skilled talent, and analysts for MissionSquare Research Institute, an arm of public-sector retirement plan provider MissionSquare Retirement, said during a June 27 virtual event.

In a June report, MissionSquare found that employment at both the state and local government levels remained below pre-pandemic levels despite improving from lows recorded in Spring 2020. In April 2022, state government employment was 1.9% lower than early 2020 levels, while local government employment was 4.1% lower than early 2020 levels.

Reasons for the slow recovery vary but include rigid compensation structures, an uneven economic recovery across jurisdictions, and a workforce demographic shift impacted by factors such as an increase in retirements and voluntary quits during the pandemic, Joshua Franzel, managing director of MissionSquare Research Institute, said during the event.

Nursing, and engineering among the most difficult positions to fill

Respondents to MissionSquare’s survey have struggled to hire for skilled positions in areas such as nursing, engineering, and building permitting and inspections — and all types of skill trades roles are being affected, according to Franzel. A majority, 78%, said they were in need of workers with analytical or critical thinking skills, while 64% said the same of workers with interpersonal skills and 53% said this of workers with management skills.

“This is really a story of the constant need for knowledge workers and the skilled trades that existed before the pandemic, and the needs for them only increased during and coming out of, the pandemic,” Franzel said, noting that governments also have seen fewer applicants for advanced positions. “We can’t assume a match between talent needs and labor markets’ ability to provide at the national and regional level.”

The problem has become so acute that some governments have cut back on essential services, said Cara Woodson Welch, executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources. IPMA-HR’s members have indicated that these cuts are particularly common in public safety roles, Welch said; “That has become a critical issue.”

Which recruiting strategies have been successful?

Queried about their recruiting processes, most state and local governments said they have seen the most success using social media, advertising jobs on government websites, and relying on employee referrals to fill positions.

As is the case for employers in the private sector, public sector employers have increased compensation and benefits to attract talent. Large hiring bonuses in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 are common in sectors such as public safety, said Leslie Scott, director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. Generally, state governments have seen their compensation budgets increase in the past couple of years, but some have questioned whether these investments have been effective, Scott noted.

Meanwhile, some governments have worked to improve workplace culture by engaging with employees and training both supervisors and front-line managers to improve work environments, Scott said. Career paths also have been an emphasis; Scott pointed to the example of one state government that launched an initiative to develop career paths for roles such as corrections officers.

“I know states are really looking to develop career paths for employees and help them see a longer-term career in government,” Scott said, adding that some have sought to bring down “silos” that may exist between agencies so that candidates may “realize that the state is one as an employer.”

Recognition also has played a role in employers’ response to talent shortages, according to Gerald Young, the senior research analyst at MissionSquare Research Institute. Whether employers decide to recognize employees through pay in the form of bonuses or through some other method, “it’s really a key desire on the employee’s part to make sure that the work that they’re doing is not going unobserved,” Young said.

Public sector employers may have the opportunity to boost interest in agency careers simply by emphasizing the role that public service plays in their day-to-day operations. Workers, Young said, may not be aware of public-sector opportunities to apply their particular trades or skills.

“Campaigns could be built around the opportunity to provide public service,” he added. “Public services as a motivation is something that might help those individuals differentiate between two job opportunities, particularly if those opportunities exist in the private sector.”

A massive movement toward hybrid

State and local governments did turn to remote work during the pandemic, but its use declined significantly in the past year. In 2021, 53% of respondents said they offered full-time remote work arrangements, compared to 22% of respondents in 2022.

Instead, hybrid work has replaced regular telework as the top flexible work strategy among public-sector employer respondents, Young said. More than half, 54%, said they included regular hybrid scheduling for eligible positions, and Young noted “very little decrease” in employee eligibility for flexible work offerings, even as full-time telework declined in emphasis.

Concurrently, office space usage has generally decreased over the previous two years, Young said, though the majority of respondents said that there has been no change in usage since the pandemic began. Larger organizations — those with 500 or more full-time employees — were more likely to report office space reduction.

Overall, NASPE’s Scott said one of the pandemic’s silver linings may be that it elevated the status of HR within agencies; “This has given states the opportunity to look at ways to become an employer of choice and [put] resources into what it may take to do that.”

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