There is significant competition from the private sector for the talented individuals that local government is looking to hire. The traditional approach to filling those vacancies is through advertising—print, electronic, social media, or even more of the same.

But tradition has its limits, as does the funding that would allow local governments to compete more directly on the compensation they offer. Salaries in local government are not viewed as competitive with the private sector to the same extent as are benefit offerings.1 If you’re hoping to attract candidates to your organization as their next employer, community engagement may be the missing piece.

Typically, we think of community engagement as a series of town hall meetings around budget adoption, consideration of a new strategic plan, or the design of a new park or library facility. But two big challenges for local government recruitment are (1) making the public aware of the career opportunities that are available and (2) impressing upon them the value of public service.

Regarding awareness of opportunities, there can be a tendency to think that big corporations or tech startups are the places to find innovation, flexible work practices, and pathways for advancement. In fact, many local governments have been active not only in adopting but also in leading the way in those practices. Paid family leave, for example, is offered by 34 percent of state and local agencies, compared with just 13 percent of private sector employers.2 And the scope of flexible work practices, most commonly offered via flexible scheduling (e.g., four 10-hour days) is either being maintained or increased by 68 percent of state and local governments.3 That’s good news for job candidates, but do they know what’s being offered?

One approach to spreading that word is a direct one—through schools. Many managers teach at community colleges or universities, or even contribute to civics lessons in local school districts. That can be an excellent way of exposing future interns or employees to the pathways available to them. At the Public Sector Workforce 2030 Summit, co-hosted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE), National League of Cities (NLC), and ICMA-RC, Ramiro Inguanzo, assistant village manager of Bal Harbour, Florida, related his experience working with students. He would ask them all what they wanted to do when they graduated. For each career they would mention—doctor, engineer, IT professional—he would explain, “You can do that in government.”4

That same direct outreach can be carried out by both departmental leaders and front-line staff through job fairs, employee referrals, explorer programs, internships, shop-with-a-cop, school resource officers, or other initiatives. In fact, in ICMA’s research on recruiting police officers, the highest rated form of outreach was “relationship recruiting.”5

So, if you’re already advertising your vacancies and you’re making people aware that your agency exists, how do you sell them on the advantage of choosing public rather than private sector employment?

Appealing to candidates’ interest in making a difference in their community can be an effective strategy. For example, the city and county of Denver instituted an advertising campaign of billboards, videos, posters, and other media exhorting people to “be a part of the city you love,” encouraging local residents to consider government employment. Even more pointedly, the city of Minneapolis and the city and county of San Francisco adopted campaigns focused around “Serving Community. Building Careers” and “Choose Purpose”—appealing to those whose altruistic motivations may not find a comparable outlet in corporate employment.6

Those strategies can also be utilized to recruit individuals from underrepresented demographics within the public sector workforce through Historically Black Colleges and Universities, neighborhoods with high immigrant populations, local faith communities, LGBTQ media, or through non-English language channels.

Once new staff join the organization, onboarding programs can help them stay engaged by identifying a career track and pursuing professional development or finding a supportive peer group. For example, Minneapolis developed Employee Resource Groups, some of which are geared toward gender or racial/ethnic diversity. In less metropolitan areas, the challenge may be that the community the new employee may most need to engage with might be outside your organization. For example, if your organization has just one or two of a particular specialized position, such as social workers, you may want to introduce new staff to a local network of social service, public safety, or health care peers in other area cities, counties, nonprofits, or medical or educational institutions so they feel more engaged with the community they are serving.7

Similar networks may exist in other forms as well, whether through national affiliations such as ICMA’s Local Government Management Fellows or programs for veterans entering the local government workforce. Another example is through Lead for America, which works to identify diverse, skilled fellowship candidates and place them in service to the communities of which they’re already a part.8

Keep in mind that the success of your recruitment efforts will be directly tied to the public’s overall view of the organization—the image people have of the parks and recreation department, the satisfaction with your public works services, and the trust they have in your front-line public safety staff. If you have not conducted a satisfaction survey, or if your strategic plan is out of date and no longer reflects the community’s priorities, you may find that a splashy social media advertising campaign is unable to overcome the community’s preconceived attitudes.

Conversely, an ability to tell the story of your jurisdiction’s path from program investments to proven results can inspire candidates to see themselves as the next problem-solvers to join your team.

Going forward, SLGE will continue its focus on workforce issues and community engagement via projects to help local governments engage with low- and middle-income communities, first-generation immigrants, and other groups that may not typically consider and apply for positions in the public sector. Research will continue through the annual survey conducted by SLGE, the International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR), and the National Association of State Personnel Executives of state and local government human resource managers and the SLGE/ICMA-RC polling of employees in the K–12 education sector about how benefit offerings impact career and employment decisions. Also, SLGE is spearheading a convening of leaders in key associations, such as ICMA and the National League of Cities, to determine what next steps need to be taken together to facilitate effective local government recruitment and retention over the next decade and beyond.

GERALD YOUNG is a senior research associate, Center for State and Local Government Excellence ( For further workforce, retirement, and health and wellness resources, see and



1 State and Local Government Workforce: 2019 Survey, SLGE, IPMA-HR, and NASPE; July 2019,
2 Workforce of the Future: Strategies to Manage Change, Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE), October 2018,
3 State and Local Government Workforce: 2019 Survey.
4 Public Sector Workforce 2030 Summit: Key Takeaways, SLGE, NLC, and ICMA-RC; December 2019,
5 The Model Police Officer: Recruitment, Training and Community Engagement, ICMA, September 2018,
6 Ibid, note 2.
7 Innovations in the Health and Human Services Workforce: State and Local Governments Prepare for the Future, SLGE, November 2019,