Written by Walker Kahn and Griffin Beronio
What's the Problem?
Municipal governments have struggled to hire and retain talented people who are committed to public service. In part, this is because they tend to pay less than the private sector, and while they do offer better stability and benefits, early-career professionals prioritize growth opportunities and professional development. Exacerbating this issue, local governments face ongoing labor shortages, as the Baby Boomer retirement wave job has been compounded by COVID-era resignations.
To address these issues, local governments need to develop data-driven hiring and retention plans, diversify their talent pipeline and recruitment team, as well as rethink job titles and roles. Furthermore, local governments should work to build a reputation as an employer of choice for job seekers and—where possible—coordinate with unions and professional organizations. This roadmap provides initial steps for achieving these goals and links to resources for improving hiring and retention.
What are People Currently Doing?
To develop effective human resource strategies and attract competitive candidates, local governments must incorporate high-quality data about the external labor market, their own needs, and their own unique value propositions. It is important to identify wages and benefits offered by competitors, issues around the cost of living, and local resources (like high-quality school districts and other public goods) that can be leveraged to attract talent. Hiring must be coordinated with skill gaps in the current workforce and with future workforce goals. The Massachusetts Human Resources Department published this hiring strategy guide with recommendations for analyzing hiring trends, developing attractive job postings, and best practices for resume review and interviewing. This guide from Lattice offers resources for increasing job listing visibility, creating effective hiring incentives, facilitating management-employee communication, identifying benefits most valued by potential workers, and expanding opportunities for skill development.
Local governments can also differentiate themselves from private sector employers by offering individualized incentives and flexibility. Hybrid or virtual workspaces improve flexibility, increase working environment comfortability, and are in high demand, especially among younger candidates. Tango Solutions offers a toolkit for incorporating hybrid workspaces and highlights how they contribute to gains in cost efficiency and worker satisfaction. Note too that certain benefits like childcare may not be equally attractive to all employees. This guide from Deloitte highlights the importance of offering a range of individualized benefits like childcare stipends or retail vouchers and recommends communicating with workers regarding their preferences for appropriate additional benefits.
Localities can improve recruitment by diversifying recruitment teams, broadening their recruitment pipeline, and developing inclusive branding. The University of California Berkeley published a guide for hiring a more diverse workforce, which recommends targeting underrepresented populations, providing on-the-job mentorships, and demonstrating an organization-wide commitment to inclusive practices. It also includes a list of organizations that make job listings accessible to underrepresented communities at the local and national levels. This GovPilot guide recommends diversifying recruitment teams and provides brand development suggestions that present government positions as attractive to a wider range of candidates.
But effective recruitment is just one piece of the puzzle. Keeping talented and consistent workers in essential positions is equally as important. Human Resources Director Magazine published a guide for improving employee retention without increasing wages, including extending paid time off and expanding professional learning opportunities for current workers. This Ultimate Local Government Employee Retention Guide stresses the importance of ongoing training and mentorship and identifies compensation increases, consistent employee encouragement, and hybrid work schedules as effective retention strategies. GovPilot published a toolkit for addressing high employee turnover, emphasizing the unique benefits of public employment like high-quality physical and mental health insurance, paid and parental leave, and student loan forgiveness. The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington recently published this article highlighting the importance of cultivating a supportive and inclusive workplace culture for retaining high-performing workers. It recommends utilizing surveys to gauge employee engagement, emphasizing flexibility, and organizing team-building events and rituals. It also notes that the city of Issaquah established a task force to improve public employee engagement, which recommended increasing employee connection to city values, providing more opportunities for professional skill development, and conducting an agency-wide review of wages and benefits. Compensation also remains a critical piece of any employee retention strategy and can be strategically designed to maximize retention. For example, Spokane County developed a sign-on bonus policy for harder-to-fill positions that provides 50% of the bonus after a new hire’s first full year on the job. Similarly, this bill from the Virginia state legislature improved recruitment by ensuring five percent annual salary raises for government workers.
Taking it to the Next Level
Strong partnerships with public sector unions can help local governments hire and retain workers. Unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, (AFSCME) partnered with local governments nationwide during the COVID crisis to access federal government emergency funding, secure masks and other protective equipment, and improve worker safety. After the pandemic, AFSCME stepped up to help local governments recruit new workers. Furthermore, public sector unions can improve the quality of public services, improve wages, reduce wage gaps, and strengthen their communities. While some local governments might be reluctant to partner with worker organizations, public approval of unions is the highest it has been since the 1970s, and while overall unionization rates remain low, they are significantly higher in the public sector. Local governments can build partnerships with unions and support their workers by helping new workers learn about the benefits of union membership, allowing unions to communicate with workers freely, and modernizing union dues collection.
Some of the most effective partnerships that local governments and unions can enter into are training partnerships. Public sector labor-management training partnerships are independent organizations created and controlled by unions and employers together to design and manage workforce training and apprenticeship. These programs can improve the quality of public services, improve worker productivity, and increase worker diversity and retention. The ProGov21 Regional Coordination Roadmap contains resources that can help build labor-management training partnerships, such as this guide by the State of Wisconsin. While these guides are oriented towards private sector management-worker collaboration, they can also be applied to public sector projects.
Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations
- The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the largest public employee union in the United States. It helps workers negotiate contracts, protect jobs, resolve grievances, fight privatization, and secure benefits for members from every field of public service.
- Society of American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE) is a national non-profit organization representing American Indian and Alaska Native Federal, Tribal, State, and local government employees. The organization offers trainings—open to all—focused on professional development, leadership, and topics related to the complex Federal Indian Trust Responsibility. SAIGE also fosters professional networking among its members.
- Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC) provides general legal, finance, and policy guidance to support local government entities in Washington State. They maintain resources such as sample job descriptions, hiring and bonus policies, personnel policy manuals, and hiring procedures.
- Uplift Oregon is a labor-management partnership created by the State of Oregon, SEIU 503, and AFSCME Council 75 to build and deliver consistent and quality education in benefits, wellness, and equity to state employees.
- Educators Thriving is a labor-management partnership created by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and local school districts around the country to provide teachers with resources to improve well-being and reduce burnout.
- International City/County Management Association (ICMA) promotes professional local government by providing training in leadership, management, innovation, and ethics.
Mayors Innovation Project, our sister organization, is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.