Recruitment and retention have always been key areas of focus for employers, whether in the public or private sector. However, a confluence of factors in the past several years has made the issue of greater urgency than ever, especially for city and county managers and human resource (HR) professionals working in state and local government.
State and local government workers are older on average than those in the private sector, with a median age of 45 years as of 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey. While the Great Recession of 2008–2009 saw many public sector workers delaying their retirement plans, this trend has reversed in recent years. In 2009, 12% of state and local government HR professionals surveyed indicated that their retirement-eligible employees had accelerated their plans for retirement in the past year. In 2022, that number had jumped to 53%, more than twice as high as it was just two years prior in 2020.
One key factor likely contributing to this acceleration in plans for retirement is the stress and burnout that public sector employees have been feeling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a November/December 2021 MissionSquare Research Institute survey of 1,100 state and local government employees, 44% of respondents reported that they are feeling stressed while at work about the pandemic; 42% reported feeling burned out.
The same survey found that 52% of state and local workers are considering leaving their jobs voluntarily due to COVID-19, either to change jobs, to retire, or leave the workforce entirely.3 Essentially, if you’re a public sector employee and you’re not considering leaving your job, then the person sitting next to you is.
And when these employees do leave, many positions are not necessarily easy to fill. In fact, this is a task that has only become more difficult in recent years. In the aforementioned 2022 survey of HR professionals, 65% identified positions such as nursing, engineering, policing, skilled trades, dispatch and IT as hard to fill. In 2015, fewer than 10% of HR professionals surveyed had reported most of these positions as hard to fill.
One strategy that public sector employers can use to help recruit the next generation of state and local government employees is to develop and implement workforce diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Successful DEI programs and activities can have benefits for employers, employees, and the community at large, including:
• Improved employee recruitment and retention efforts.
• Improved workforce culture and morale.
• Better ability to address community needs.
• Increased diversity of perspectives across an organization.
• Better ability to engage with diverse constituencies within a community.
• More creative and innovative thinking from employees.
• Increased employee productivity.
Two very concrete examples of the benefits of DEI efforts are that redacting personal information from the initial consideration of job applications can result in twice as many diverse candidates being interviewed, and that employees feeling accepted correlates to a 56% improvement in their job performance.
For a more in-depth discussion of the importance of workforce DEI for state and local government, historical and current trends, and the impact that workforce DEI initiatives can have on employers, employees, and the larger community, see the 2021 MissionSquare Research Institute report, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Public Service Workforce.”
Workforce DEI programs and policies may be formal or informal in nature, and can be related to hiring (e.g., regular review of job specifications to eliminate non-job-related minimum standards for education or experience), training and development (e.g., DEI training programs and events for employees beyond what may be offered during new employee onboarding), pay and benefits (e.g., policies that promote gender equity by providing paid family leave and/or work flexibility for childcare needs), and other issues (e.g., programs or policies to promote inclusivity in facilities and employee work environments).
Recruiting young, diverse employees and bringing them into an equitable and inclusive environment can help accomplish multiple goals. Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to consider workforce DEI programs and policies as a recruitment tool is that it is what young people with an interest in public service are looking for when it comes to workplace culture.
In a spring 2022, MissionSquare Research Institute/Lead For America survey of local government fellowship applicants (full results to be released in a forthcoming report), more than three in four (77%) applicants said that it was ‘very important’ that their next workplace is mindful of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all identities. This even outranked other factors such as developing professional skills and helping with career advancement.
But what about the challenges that employers face in recruiting a diverse workforce?
In a recent MissionSquare Research Institute survey of 353 HR decision-makers in local government and K-12 education, the most frequently reported barrier to implementing workforce DEI programs and policies at an organization was a lack of diverse candidates within the local labor market.6 The vast majority (87%) of respondents surveyed cited this as a barrier; 66% considered it a significant barrier.
While there may be a lack of diverse candidates when it comes to those who visually appear different than the majority of a given community’s workforce, HR decision-makers can work to ensure that they are considering the range of diverse aspects of a job candidate, some of which are more or less visible to those around them. Diversity can include, but is not limited to, categories as wide-ranging as race, ethnicity, age, gender, LGBTQIA+ identification, veteran status, differences in mobility/physical abilities, and cognitive diversity.
Employers can use a combination of traditional and non-traditional channels to attract diverse candidates. In addition to methods such as social media, advertising on government websites or profession-specific media, job fairs, and employee referrals, employers can also look to sources such as academic institutions and other partner organizations, internships and apprenticeships, and outreach to specific neighborhoods or demographic groups. They can also consider how flexible or hybrid staffing models may open opportunities to appeal to diverse candidates outside their immediate labor market.
In a focus group consisting of a subset of respondents to the MissionSquare Research Institute survey of public sector HR decision-makers (full results to be released in a forthcoming report), one employee of a mid-sized local government described the need for utilizing multiple channels—and new channels—for recruiting diverse candidates as follows:
“[A few years ago for a department director position,] I got almost 100 applications. More recently, we posted for another director, and there were fewer than 10. [It’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake.] It’s more about who are we not reaching? You need to speak louder and wider and broader and attract more people to your organization. What are our other channels? How are we limited by our own thinking? How can we improve the volume, the diversity, et cetera, of our recruiting pool, of our talent pool, to figure out what is it that we’re not doing? Where are we not posting? Who are we not talking to? How might we potentially be turning certain people off? All that sort of thing. Is that partnering with different colleges or community groups and things like that? Yes. Attacking processes, seeing if they could be improved? Yes. It’s formal and informal. But it’s a stated objective, and it’s on my plate right now.”
Across the country, state and local government employers are utilizing innovative strategies to recruit a more diverse workforce.
The state of North Carolina recently launched a pilot program to help people with autism succeed in public sector work. The program, through the state’s partnership with two nonprofit organizations, provides up to five hours per year of individual career coaching to state employees with autism spectrum disorder. Neurodivergent employees receive guidance through the coaching on job interviews, developing career goals, and interpersonal interactions and management skills to boost their effectiveness with colleagues and supervisors.
In the city of Chillicothe, Ohio, the Chillicothe City School District (CCSD) is partnering with the Ross County NAACP in an effort to attract Black educators to the county and recruit a workforce that is more representative of the community served.9 The CCSD and Ross County NAACP are utilizing multiple approaches to recruit more Black educators. These include interviewing Black educators who have left the CCSD to better understand how the school could improve its support of future teachers, inviting members of the NAACP to engage with Black educators during recruitment visits to colleges, and pairing new teachers with mentors to help them acclimate to life in Chillicothe.
In Connecticut, as the state deals with an unprecedented wave of retirements, largely due to new changes in employee pension and retirement benefits, the state legislature formed a task force to develop a plan for filling the newly open positions with more women and people of color.10 The legislature is currently exploring potential changes to increase workforce diversity, such as writing more inclusive job postings and casting a wide net when recruiting for open positions.11
In the end, recruiting a diverse workforce is an important first step. But it is just that—a first step. For this diverse workforce to remain with their employer and to thrive, the workplace environment needs to be one that is also equitable and inclusive. It is when all three of these components are in place that state and local governments are best positioned to be employers of choice for the next generation of public sector workers.
*As of June 30, 2022
RIVKA LISS-LEVINSON, PhD is senior research manager at MissionSquare Research Institute, where she conducts quantitative and qualitative research on state and local government retirement plans, health and wellness benefits, and workforce demographics and skill-set needs.
We Want to Hear from You!
Is your jurisdiction engaged in workforce DEI programs? Have you been able to evaluate the success of these programs? Do you have lessons learned that could be useful to other city and county managers? If you would like to share your story, please email the MissionSquare Research Institute team at email@example.com.
MissionSquare Research Institute promotes excellence in state and local government and other public service organizations to attract and retain talented employees. The organization identifies leading practices and conducts research on retirement plans, health and wellness benefits, workforce demographics and skill set needs, labor force development, and topics facing the not-for-profit industry and education sector. MissionSquare Research Institute brings together leaders and respected researchers. More information and access to research and publications are available here.
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