Rivka Liss-Levinson and Gerald Young, MissionSquare Research Institute, Washington DC, give an overview of the major demographic, technological, and pandemic-related disruptions altering the public workforce environment in the USA.
As major demographic, technological, and pandemic-related disruptions alter the public workforce environment, MissionSquare Research Institute (the Institute) has been analyzing how employers can manage those impacts over the longer term.
Formerly the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, the Institute works closely with various public sector stakeholders such as the International City/County Management Association, International Public Management Association for Human Resources, and the Government Finance Officers Association to develop practical research to help sub-national public agencies remain employers of choice and to attract and retain talented employees. Primary focuses include workforce, retirement, and health and wellness issues.
The most recent of these surveys, State and Local Government Workforce 2021, was conducted from February 25 to April 6, 2021, with 288 U.S. state and local government respondents.
The Institute’s initial survey of human resources managers from 2009 revealed a recession-influenced labor market in which employers had few problems finding qualified staff to fill vacancies. Since that time, however, and culminating with the COVID-19 pandemic’s “Great Resignation,” more than half of employers are describing key positions as being hard to fill, including those in public safety, health care, skilled trades, and engineering [See Figure 12].
Relatedly, 48% or more reported that job postings in maintenance and information technology, where there is direct competition with private employers, have garnered fewer qualified applicants than there are positions available.
A challenge to the ability of public employers to compete for talent is the flexibility private employers have to adjust wages quickly as market conditions change. As a result, only 60% of human resources managers feel their organizations are able to offer competitive wages.
To attract talent, it is necessary to emphasize other financial benefits, such as retirement savings contributions, or more intangible benefits, such as workplace flexibility.
Regarding flexibility, even before the pandemic, more than half of governments surveyed were offering flexible scheduling, such as four 10-hour workdays or hours that could be adjusted around peak commuting times or child care drop-off and pick-up times. When COVID-19 struck, 53% began offering remote work options, including as many as 83% of larger employers (those with over 2,500 full-time employees).
This increase in the offering of flexible schedules is particularly critical as state and local government workers continue to struggle with the financial and employment impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with lingering health and safety concerns. Since May 2020, the Institute has surveyed public sector workers every six months about these impacts, with the most recent results from 1,203 state and local employees surveyed in May 2021.
Among the key findings, 41% of respondents said they and their family have been negatively impacted financially by the pandemic, and 38% of those surveyed have had to spend down money from their emergency fund to make ends meet. Employees are taking on more debt (31%) and are worried about being able to save enough to be financially secure throughout retirement (43%).
COVID-19 is affecting employees’ mental health as well. State and local workers were most likely to report feeling stressed (42%), burnt-out/fatigued (42%), or anxious (31%) about COVID while at work. Nearly three in four (74%) considered their job as at least somewhat risky in terms of potential exposure to people who may have COVID-19. Further, 56% have found it difficult to balance both work and home-life demands during the prior six months. With these concerns, it is perhaps not surprising – though certainly alarming — that 31% of respondents said that working during the pandemic had made them consider changing jobs. Of those, 25% want to leave the government sector entirely. [See Figure 10].
Despite these struggles, employees do have recommendations on how to improve the workplace. When asked to describe in their own words one or two realistic actions their employer could take to make the workplace better, the most frequently reported responses were issuing raises/bonuses (21%), allowing work from home/ remote work and flexible hours (20%), and promoting safety by following CDC guidelines and providing/enforcing PPE (17%).
As much as the pandemic is continuing to impact employee recruitment and retention, employers are also facing a “silver tsunami” of retirements, as a large segment of older workers prepares to retire. Unlike during the 2009 recession, those who are eligible to retire are deciding to accelerate those plans, which means that employers need to have effective plans in place for filling key leadership positions that may be left vacant, preserving institutional knowledge, and developing skills and expertise among younger staff so that they see a clear path to professional growth in a public service career.
Automation is also driving expectations that some positions, particularly in areas like customer service, transportation, or supervision, may require fewer staff over the next 10 years (see A Cross-Sector Review of Public Service Employment).
Regardless of how these multiple workforce challenges interact, one factor weighing in favor of government employers is employee satisfaction with serving the public. For example, 60% of employees in the May 2021 COVID 19 survey say they value serving their community during this difficult time. Recognizing that employee motivation lies not just in the salaries that governments can offer, 19% of HR managers are building recruiting campaigns around finding satisfaction in public service.
For more on how the cities of Denver, Minneapolis, and San Francisco have emphasized the value of public service, read about government’s brand advantage in Workforce of the Future: Strategies to Manage Change.
• Rivka and Gerald’s presentation for the Performance Networks Seminar is available to download from the APSE website. Please visit www.apse.org.uk