As the economy ekes out a recovery, public sector employers, particularly at the state and local levels, are still feeling the brunt of the recession, experiencing historic budget shortfalls while dealing with the rising costs of benefits. As a result, job losses are still occurring in force at all levels of public sector employment. Over 2.5 percent of government jobs have been lost since 2009, which, according to the Roosevelt Institute (http://www.rooseveltinstitute.org/sites/all/files/GOPProjectSlashingPublicWorkforce.pdf ) makes that the “greatest reduction in history.” More government jobs were lost last year (approximately 265,000) than in 2010 (approximately 221,000).
Add to that doom and gloom this startling statistic: only 6% of today’s college students indicate any interest in working for the government at any level – federal, state or local. According to a poll conducted by the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, DC, of over 35,000 students from 599 colleges and universities across the country (http://ourpublicservice.org/OPS/publications/viewcontentdetails.php?id=170), a vast majority show more interest in continued schooling, private sector work and even non-profit work than in a government career. The expectation for government payrolls to continue growing smaller may be one reason why students aren’t being drawn toward public sector careers. Job security ranked very highly in the list of qualities students considered most important.
Ironically, in its April 2012 “State and Local Government Workforce: 2012 Trends” survey (http://slge.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/S-L-Govt-Workforce-2012_12-195_web.pdf), IPMA and the National Association of State Personnel Executives noted that while almost 51% of the 343 member governments participating had implemented pay freezes and 42% had implemented hiring freezes in the past year, members were still having problems recruiting a laundry list of positions at all levels of government service.
These sometimes conflicting findings present many challenges for government employers in finding and keeping high-quality talent in the coming years. How can local government attract the best and the brightest employees – not just recent graduates but across the board? There are different approaches, of course.
Some recruitment efforts can be more successful when targeted at specific industry sectors or position categories. In the IT field, for instance, many specialists and engineers are retiring or nearing retirement right when government is pursuing large modernization initiatives. In a 2010 report prepared by the Federal Chief Information Officers Council (http://www.nextgov.com/defense/2010/04/agencies-urged-to-change-workplace-practices-to-attract-young-workers/46533/), the Council predicted a large number of retirements of Information employees from the Federal government through 2016, a trend which can easily be translated to state and local agencies. As such, governments will have to find the talent who not only can replace these retirees but also have the 2.0 skill set necessary to move governments forward. For the Net Generation in particular (the generation that grew up with the Internet), this means capitalizing on their ability to work with leading-edge technologies, social media and virtual worlds and gaming while meeting their needs for flexibility in work schedules, lots of feedback and mentoring, and responsibilities (and the corresponding advancement) that are immediate, not laid out over a perceived bureaucratic food chain. The report also states that though no government agency is listed as a Top 10 place to work in surveys of Net Gen employees but that the desire to serve is there. It is up to government agencies to connect with these employees, and make them feel like they are making a contribution and a difference quickly. Playing to and nurturing the strengths of potential employees is a key in any recruitment effort, and local government will need to further distance itself from the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mindset as it looks to attract top talent. Employers need to make sure they are creating an environment in which innovation is not only welcome, but encouraged, at all levels of the organization. A recent Forbes blog post (http://www.forbes.com/sites/haydnshaughnessy/2012/04/25/the-8-essentials-of-innovation/) notes that most employers are just paying “lip service to innovation.” In order to create the engaged culture that true innovation generates, employers need to make sure you give employees feedback and also follow-up to let them know what’s happening with their contribution and input. Truly building this kind of culture provides a benefit that, though intangible, can be a big selling point for local governments when recruiting.
Benefits can play a key role in recruiting top talent as well. Public sector employees are being asked to contribute more and more to their retirement and health plans and the days of the vaunted “public sector benefit package,” designed to offset perceived lower pay, are gone. Public and private sector benefits are largely on even footing these days. However, local governments can and should take advantage of some of the more innovative benefits that their private-sector counterparts may have been using to entice top talent for year. Many governments have been touting wellness programs for years, though many are more fluff than substance with onsite flu shots and weight loss programs often being the key benefits provided to offset the much larger contribution employees are being asked to contribute to their health premiums. Some innovations in this area include providing truly holistic wellness programs to employees, programs that focus not only on the physical health but also the emotional, financial, and personal safety needs of employees. Staffing locations with on-site nurses (like the education-sector model) to provide immediate health and wellness needs and providing financial coaches to help employees reach their financial stability and future goals are some examples of this type of program. Another easy win regarding benefits is to provide candidates with a detailed breakdown, including dollar values, of your benefits programs. Seeing the health, leave, retirement and other benefits in black and white and with values attached is often eye-opening for candidates, particularly those new to the job market.
Pay-for-performance programs can also prove to be valuable recruitment tools. In systems where pay is truly linked to performance, with appreciable differences between performance ratings, top performers – the kinds of people you want to attract – are highly motivated and engaged. In addition, the collateral value to the local government of truly rewarding performance and not merely seat time cannot be overstated. Our recent experience shows that moving from step-based or entitlement pay systems to pay for performance systems allows all employees (and candidates) to understand how their contribution aligns with and links to the larger goals of the organization and that their work will make a difference, both to the organization and to the employee in terms of compensation.
And speaking of compensation, it is, of course, the elephant in the room. Being able to offer market-leading salaries would of course make any agency an attractive prospect to potential employees. As mentioned previously, though, local governments are experiencing the opposite – pay cuts, pay freezes, and stagnating salary scales due to budget constraints. Government employers are well served to make sure they are getting the most bang for their compensation buck. Pay for performance systems are a key way to ensure that employers are truly paying for high quality performance that contributes to the achievement of strategic initiatives vs handing out step increases for another year of attendance, regardless of performance. Employers can also make sure that their compensation systems are as tuned-up as budgets will allow. Have pay ranges been updated lately? This may require spending either time or money (or both) in conducting a market study but it is a critical step to ensuring that you are at least approaching the same ball park as your competitors in the labor market.
In short, there are no quick fixes to make any public sector organization attractive to top candidates but the suggestions above may help organizations begin the journey. With limited budgets, it is more important than ever that public sector employers provide a culture of innovation and engagement that will make them an employer of choice. The funding for increased salary and benefits will eventually return and further enhance these efforts to be an employer of choice.