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City halls struggle with staffing crisis

Illustration of an iconic "I heart city" mug with a bar graph in place of the heart
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

City governments are feeling a staffing squeeze as baby boomers retire in droves and the tight job market makes it harder to attract millennials into municipal gigs.

Why it matters: Vacant positions means state and local governments are less able to provide services. They're also struggling to find workers with the expertise to drive tech- or data-intensive projects.

The big picture: With a national unemployment rate of less than 4%, public sector jobs are not as enticing for experienced workers who can command higher salaries in the private sector.

  • State and local government employees made 3.7% to 8.2% less than their counterparts in the private sector in 2018, per the Economic Policy Institute.
  • Government benefits and stability typically compensate for less competitive salaries, but many cities are cutting back pension plans as they try to stem crippling retirement costs.
"Of course, we all love super-low unemployment rates. But it adds a challenge for cities looking to attract and retain talent, particularly in the public safety fields. As much as people say millennials don't understand pensions, [pensions are] still a powerful recruitment and retention tool."
Brian Egan, legislative manager for finance, administration and intergovernmental relations at the National League of Cities

Public sector hiring has been slowing for some time and didn't bounce back as fast as private sector hiring after the Great Recession.

  • Today there are fewer state and local government employees on a per capita basis than at any time since the 1980s, according to data from Moody's Analytics.
  • The average hiring rate for public administration jobs from June 2018 to May 2019 is down 5.4% compared with the average hiring rate during the same months in 2014–2015, per a LinkedIn data analysis provided to Axios.

Meanwhile, retirements are increasing at an alarming rate.

  • In 2018, 44% of state and local employers said that retirements are on the rise, with some workers even accelerating retirement dates, according to the most recent workforce report by the Center for State & Local Government Excellence.
  • 82% of employers surveyed listed recruiting and retaining qualified personnel with needed skills as the top workforce priority, followed by offering competitive compensation packages.

Zooming in: Redding, California, a town of 95,000 about 150 miles north of Sacramento, is dealing with vacancies "in virtually every department," mostly due to retirements and trouble recruiting younger professionals away from larger metros, said City Manager Barry Tippin.

  • The city's electric utility of 180 people has 20 open positions, and its police department of 107 officers has a constant vacancy rate of five to eight openings, Tippin said. Officers often retire when their pensions max out after 30 years on the job.
  • "When you're dealing with that sort of percentage of vacancies, you tend to not get all your work done," he said. "We're finding a need to prioritize on the most important and efficient work to do."

The gap is widening between the number of public sector job openings and the number of job candidates applying for those roles, according to a survey of jobseekers by NEOGOV, which provides public sector HR software and runs the job board GovernmentJobs.com.

Reproduced from the 2019 NEOGOV Job Seeker report; Chart: Axios Visuals

The top two reasons people apply for state and local government roles are job security (61%) and benefits packages (58%) across all age groups, per the survey.

  • Millennials also ranked career advancement and professional training high on the list of things that would attract them to apply for jobs.

Fellowship programs can be useful for hiring recent grads or mid-career private sector employees, said Hollie Russon Gilman, fellow with New America's Political Reform Program.

  • Debt forgiveness programs could lure millennials saddled with student debt.
  • "People want opportunities for advanced learning, mentorship and clear pathways to leadership — but you don't necessarily see enough of that in the public sector," Gilman said. "The key is building leaders who don't think of themselves as leaders."

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