Six Universal Themes of the Public Service Workforce Crisis

All levels of government all over the country are struggling to hire and retain workers. Here are six takeaways from the “public service workforce crisis” from one policy leader’s experience.

Public service around the country is at an all-time low. State, county, and municipal governments are struggling to hire and retain eligible workers for a vast range of government positions. Bob Lavigna, Senior Fellow of Public Sector at UKG, an HR and workforce management firm, recently traveled the country studying what he is calling the “public service workforce crisis.” He recently wrote about what he learned for Route Fifty

Here, MACo summarizes the six main takeaways from Lavigna’s studies:

  1. The government workforce crisis is nationwide, in all levels of government and most occupations.
  2. Being an employer of choice is not solely HR’s job.
  3. Government needs to do a better job recruiting and hiring.
  4. Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging continue to be priorities.
  5. Employees want flexibility.
  6. It’s about data.

The government workforce crisis is nationwide, in all levels of government and most occupations

Lavigna emphasizes that all public service employers at all levels of government are struggling to hire and retain talented staff:

In the past, I would kick off each session by asking for a show of hands on who is struggling to attract and retain talent. I no longer do this because almost everyone now raises their hand.

I try to disabuse attendees of the notion that there is a quick, easy, one-size-fits-all way to magically become an employer of choice. It takes hard work to create a culture that makes an organization a great place to work.

Being an employer of choice is not solely HR’s job

Lavigna stresses that “Talent is everyone’s job,” and should not be left to HR to resolve on its own:

Human resources need to have the proverbial seat at the decision-making table, but there is increasing realization by government leaders and non-HR folks that they also have key roles in attracting and retaining talent.

Government needs to do a better job recruiting and hiring

Lavigna says that “government needs an extreme branding makeover,” and to move away from “a target-rich” hiring environment that it takes too long to hire:

According to research from the UKG Great Place to Work Institute (based on 100 million employee survey responses), purpose drives retention. As I argue, government organizations should brand themselves as employers that offer work with purpose.

He notes that some government agencies are already seeing success doing just that through the following strategies:

  • Recruiting and hiring by using social media more broadly and effectively;
  • Writing job ads that highlight the opportunity to perform rewarding work (i.e., ads that don’t just repeat position descriptions);
  • Offering referral and hiring bonuses; and
  • Producing recruiting materials such as videos about how their employees are making a difference.

Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging continue to be priorities

Lavigna ties broader demographic trends into hiring and retaining for public service:

…The nation is undergoing unprecedented demographic changes. For the first time since the initial U.S. Census (conducted in 1790, a trivia question I ask that almost no one ever gets right), the number of white Americans in the nation’s population decreased in 2020.

Government has a particular responsibility to look like the people it serves. Most public sector organizations understand that focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, or DEI&B, is not just the right thing to do, but it is also a business imperative. For example, research shows that diverse leadership groups make better decisions.

Employees want flexibility

Lavigna highlights the growing trend of employees wanting flexibility and suggests that “government must provide employees with workplace flexibility, even for those who can’t work remotely.”

For those who can, let them work remotely even if in a hybrid arrangement. Managers told me they are losing talented people, including in fields like IT, not because of pay but because of return-to-office policies. Several managers admitted they are continuing to allow these employees to work remotely, in defiance of such rules, because that’s the only way to keep them.

For positions where remote work is not possible, there are ways to be flexible. Approaches include offering a 4/10 workweek—10 hours a day, 4 days a week—offering flexible starting and ending times, giving employees more time off, allowing them to self-schedule (especially in 24/7 operations), and even letting these employees work remotely from time to time to catch up on administrative or other tasks they can do from anywhere.

It’s about data

Lastly, he says that it all comes down to data:

Organizations, including in government, can’t just guess about what it takes to create a culture that attracts and retains talent. Data and metrics will enable organizations to understand if they are attracting and retaining the right talent.

More broadly, organizations need to collect data about how their employees feel about the workplace, and how the organization can create the most positive experience.

He encourages public employers to use data, for example, to understand:

  • Who’s applying for jobs and who is dropping out due to delays and user-unfriendly processes.
  • Which employees are staying, and which are leaving—don’t just look at the overall turnover rate.
  • Whether diversity exists up and down the organization.
  • If there is pay equity across gender and racial/ethnic groups.
  • Whether excessive overtime by certain employees is causing pay inequities and creating risk for the organization and the people it serves.

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