A State and Local Government Leader’s Guide to Building the Public Workforce of the Future

August 6, 2018

Governing Institute

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The need for workforce modernization in the public sector has never been greater. There are multiple challenges that make it both more important and more difficult for states and localities to attract new employees into public service. To solve these challenges, governments must modernize their approach to hiring and retaining talent.
 
First, the challenges: Government workforces skew older than their private-sector counterparts, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, with public agencies employing higher percentages of Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers than commercial companies. Public agencies will continue to experience high retirement rates, particularly among senior and highly skilled employees, as these individuals leave the workforce. Replacing this talent won’t be easy, thanks to an increasingly competitive labor market. The nation’s jobless rate is the lowest in more than a decade. Qualified employees often have their choice of attractive job offers.
 
Unfortunately, some of the aspects that historically made public-sector jobs attractive are being scaled back. This is particularly true of defined benefit pension plans and health coverage, which have been key differentiators for government employers. Government workers, for instance, are being asked to shoulder a greater portion of their health insurance premiums as states and localities look to trim budget expenses.
 
The impact of changes like these can be severe. Sixty-five percent of 167 respondents to a 2017 Governing Institute workforce survey ranked benefits as a top factor in recruitment and retention. Innovative public agencies are confronting these issues through workforce modernization. California and Tennessee are simplifying and modernizing civil service rules making it easier for job-seekers to find open positions and streamlining the hiring process. In Tennessee, these changes also let state agencies pay workers based on their performance.
 
Partnership and apprenticeship programs are helping states and localities build a pipeline of skilled workers. One example comes from Hennepin County, Minn., where the government teams with community and technical colleges and local non-profit organizations to prepare non-traditional students for civil service careers. Tennessee and others are emphasizing training for existing employees to retain and maximize talent. Leadership academies and similar activities — directed by a state-level chief learning officer — help groom Tennessee employees for career advancement.
 
States and localities also are modernizing employee benefits — a key factor in hiring and retention — by launching electronic enrollment processes and offering an array of voluntary benefit options that let workers tailor coverage to fit their needs. That’s the case in Hialeah, Fla., where the city digitized the signup process and implemented one-to-one counseling to help employees and retirees make smart health care choices.
 
Workplace culture is getting more attention, too. The Folsom, Calif., Police Department promotes work-life balance by keeping an eye on mandatory overtime and fostering an environment where officer voices are heard and respected. Folsom Police Chief Cynthia Renaud notes that happy employees are some of her most effective recruiters.
 
Finally, agencies are using tools like social media to engage with prospective employees. The Folsom PD texts job applicants weekly with test results and other information to keep them engaged in the hiring process. And California uses social media advertisements to target talent for hard-to-fill positions.
 
Implementing practices such as these is crucial for states and localities as they recruit and retain talent in an increasingly competitive employment market.

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