A myriad of factors, including the proximity to a large metropolitan area, high cost of living, and high-performing schools, often creates a scenario for suburbs in which the recruitment and retention of employees can be difficult, especially for lower wage or entry-level jobs.
Rural counties, cities, and towns navigate different obstacles to attract high performers, subject matter experts, and younger workers. Further, local governments have placed an emphasis on ensuring they are welcoming and inclusive communities yet struggle to attain their goals.
In fall 2021, the town of Needham, Massachusetts, recognized many of the same challenges, some that plagued the organization for years and others revealed by the pandemic, and the need for assistance to accomplish goals set forth by elected officials. In an innovative approach, Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick asked ICMA for help, providing an opportunity for Leadership ICMA (L-ICMA) individuals to work on current local government workforce issues.
For more than 15 years, L-ICMA has graduated numerous mid-career ICMA members through its competitive, intensive two-year ICMA University program designed to cultivate key competencies needed for successful leadership at all levels of local government management. The class of select individuals complete a series of class modules and team-based capstone projects.
When Kate Fitzpatrick provided a capstone project to develop an analysis of and recommendations for strategies to guide the town of Needham’s human resources department to enhance the diversification of their talent pool and provide and fund attractive employee benefits and programs, five Class of 2022 L-ICMA members eagerly volunteered.
The L-ICMA team members were Jack Daly, assistant public works director, Georgetown, Texas, and L-ICMA team lead; Jared Jones, assistant city manager of operations, Panama City, Florida; Jennifer L. Prochazka, AICP, assistant city manager, College Station, Texas; Stephanie Reyes, interim city manager, San Marcos, Texas; and Laura Savage, senior program manager on the ICMA membership team.
What began as a capstone project for a small, wealthy Boston suburb soon turned into something greater as the team realized their research and recommendations are applicable beyond Needham’s town limits and can be right sized for many local government organizations. Through the course of virtual meetings with Needham town management, an onsite visit to the town, and 10 employee focus groups, as well as research on emerging trends and best practices related to employee recruitment, compensation, benefits, and program offerings, the L-ICMA team is proud to share the key findings and recommendations.
The L-ICMA team reviewed the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) State of the Workplace Study 2021-2022 and WorldatWork’s 2021 Total Rewards Inventory Programs & Practices, which was released in February 2022, to determine what drives success in human resource departments—and what does not.
When analyzing the data from SHRM and WorldatWork, the team reached several conclusions that should be considered best practices for local government.
The Role of Human Resources. It is critical for town management to define HR’s role in the organization as it relates to recruitment, retention, and organizational morale and engagement. Within those definitions, there needs to be clarity around these questions:
- What role does HR have when it comes to recruitment? Is HR solely charged with recruiting and retaining employees or are those responsibilities shared with department leaders and supervisors throughout the organization?
- What role does HR play in terms of retaining employees? Or ensuring diverse applicant pools?
If these tasks are HR’s responsibility, then there needs to be appropriate support and resources to ensure they can achieve their objectives. If these responsibilities are shared among departments, then time needs to be taken to document roles and responsibilities, and then provide appropriate training to hiring managers to ensure they can meet the expectations of the organization.
Rethink Your Approach to Compensation. The trend in compensation is to focus on market-based adjustments as opposed to cost-of-living-adjustments. Historically, the public sector has used other public sector employers as the basis for their market studies. As wages increase in the private sector, however, the public sector may need to amend compensation philosophies to include benchmarking against private sector employees, especially in hard to fill positions. Additionally, incentive pay to encourage continuing education, longevity, and rewarding high performers should be considered in compensation strategies. Compensation tools can include bonus pay (which avoids compounding salaries); accelerated step programs (which reward longevity but are front-loaded); weekend or shift differential pay; accelerated pay increases for high performers; and referral, sign-on, or retention bonuses to encourage employees to participate in recruitment efforts.
Flexibility for all. Workplace flexibility appears to be a trend that will continue. Employers need to be open to more remote work and possibly even dedicated remote positions, especially for hard-to-fill positions. For jobs that cannot be done remotely, flexible schedules should be discussed.
Rethink Benefits. New benefit offerings should be considered. Specifically, the following benefits are increasingly becoming standard:
- Shifting to a paid time off (PTO) bank versus accruing separate sick and vacation leave.
- Short-term disability insurance.
- Unpaid, job-protected time off to care for or bond with new children (beyond what’s required by state and federal laws).
- Dependent care spending program.
- Identify theft insurance.
- Personal financial planning services tied to the retirement program.
- Pet insurance.
- Paid civic duty.
DEI-centric Recruitment. Finally, a focus on specifically recruiting from more diverse or underrepresented talent pools will help address concerns related to recruitment and retention, as well as dovetail with implementing or expanding DEI initiatives. According to SHRM, both efforts are interrelated and successes in one will drive success in the other.
Employee Focus Groups
To help better understand what attracts employees to apply to work for Needham, what makes employees stay, and what can be done to attract others to Needham, the L-ICMA team conducted onsite stakeholder retention and recruitment interviews on March 28 and 29, 2022.
Ten employee interviews were held over the two days and represented town employees with varying tenure and responsibility within the organization. The team also visited various town facilities and spoke with staff at Town Hall, the Recycling and Transfer Station, the Department of Public Works, and the Fire Station. These interviews were conducted as facilitated focus group discussions with approximately 5- 10 participants in each group. Targeted employment demographics included:
- Ten or more years of tenure in Needham.
- Four to nine years of tenure in Needham.
- Three or fewer years of tenure in Needham (two groups interviewed).
- Six months or less tenure in Needham (three groups interviewed).
- Managers and supervisors.
- Hard-to-recruit positions.
- Public safety.
Focus group participants were asked to share their thoughts about Needham as a community and as an organization in which to work. Interviews were organized onto three distinct discussions focusing on compensation, employee benefits, organizational culture, and diversity. The same discussion format and guided questions were used for all focus groups regardless of tenure or responsibility within the organization.
#1 Needham employees enjoy the work, the work culture, and the leadership. Participants were positive about the environment and opportunities in Needham. A very common response when asked about the best part about working for Needham was the people with whom they work. Additionally, L-ICMA heard numerous unsolicited comments related to the professionalism of and the support from town management.
#2 While an initial concern for town leadership, length of commute did not appear to be a concern for those residing outside of Needham. In fact, while very few participants live in Needham, the majority of participants stated the short commute time to Needham as a benefit.
#3 Several small, but impactful changes could be made to both attract and retain existing employees. Demonstrating care for the employees as individuals and supporting their whole self while they work for the town of Needham will set Needham apart from the competition and make it an employer of choice.
Recommendations from Employees
From the hours of interviews and in-depth discussions, L-ICMA developed a list of specific and actionable recommendations from the participants:
Needham school eligibility for all Needham employees. The town has excellent schools that could serve to attract top talent and retain existing employees.
Last mile public transportation. Needham has direct and convenient access to public transportation that expands its potential talent pool. Several participants expressed concern that once in Needham, only Town Hall was in proximity to the transit stop. Ride share, bike share, or other easy to access transportation to other town facilities could remedy this concern.
Summer ambassador program. A paid internship program offering a pipeline of potential talent to serve the town in the future. A mixed cohort of interns from across town operations could cross-train together, support each other, and meet to discuss innovative town operation ideas and emerging leadership skills.
No civil service or residence requirements. Due to the high cost of housing and existing demographics in Needham, any civil service or residency requirements will greatly limit the potential talent pool and reduce the diversity of the workforce.
Employee plus one insurance. This recommendation was stated many times throughout the discussions with interest from members of households that either do not yet have children or whose children have left the home.
Housing assistance. Citing the high cost of housing and transportation in Needham and the greater Boston area, participants felt that the only way for employees to live in Needham and therefore reduce transportation costs is to either offer housing assistance or for “town housing” (akin to “company housing” of the past) to be developed in Needham.
Paid family leave/parental leave. This additional benefit was recommended a number of times in support of employees with young families or those with aging parents needing care.
Childcare assistance. Childcare costs are high in and around Needham. The ability to have a child close to a parent at work was mentioned as an important benefit by parents with small children. It can also be a benefit to the employer since closing times of faraway childcare facilities may mean employees need to leave work earlier. Childcare assistance could be in the form of additional compensation or through an employer-sponsored childcare facility.
QR codes on trucks for recruiting. This recommendation came from one of the participants and is a creative and low-cost way to advertise jobs on the very vehicle or equipment that prospective employees may operate!
PTO instead of buckets. Shifting to a personal time off (PTO) bank in lieu of distinct buckets for vacation time, sick time, etc. can offer additional flexibility for staff and allow the employee to step away from work without identifying the need for the time off. In addition, it may reduce stigma surrounding mental health and provide more privacy for those living with chronic illness.
Front-loaded benefits. This additional type of benefit may help attract top talent that is currently happily employed elsewhere. Changing jobs is a huge decision once established in a successful career. To make a move to the town of Needham more attractive, a front-loaded bank of PTO should be offered. Introductory or probationary periods that restrict the use of vacation time are quickly becoming a thing of the past as employers show their staff appreciation and trust by providing this benefit as soon as employment begins.
The site visit, as well as the focus groups and employee surveys, helped the team determine if Needham has the components to meet standards of being an employer ideally situated to recruit and retain top talent among its workforce compared with the research of current trends within the public and private sectors.
After analysis, these general recommendations were made to guide Needham to more comprehensively address the wants and needs of their employees, as well as position them to attract new ones:
- Define the mission and role of Needham’s Human Resources Department to position the department to be more strategic. Shifting from an administrative department to a strategic department will require better employee on-boarding and ongoing communication, as well as organizational development, training, and recognition programs to ensure that employees understand and appreciate the programmatic offerings of the HR department and what individual departments are responsible for within those offerings.
- Study new benefit offerings to include adopting a paid time off (PTO) bank and implementing a short-term disability insurance program, paid paternity leave, and dependent care subsidies.
- Adjust the town’s compensation philosophy to be more incentive-based to encourage continuing education, longevity, high performance, and employees participating in recruitment.
- Explore options to adjust recruitment strategies, such as encouraging and advertising workplace flexibility; targeted recruitments for veterans, historically underserved communities, community and technical colleges, and high schoolers; and developing a more robust internship or summer ambassador program. Hiring supervisors need to understand the process and what can be offered to potential employees. Training to help hiring managers think through equity issues when negotiating pay and paid time off will also help address concerns highlighted in the focus groups.
The HR department currently functions in a support capacity and the entire organization and community could benefit from them being a more strategic business partner. The current HR team is excellent; however, it is difficult to focus on the bigger picture and being more proactive without having the necessary staff and resources to accomplish this vision. The recommendation is to conduct a study to more accurately identify the needs that are essential to allowing the HR team to focus on more targeted recruitment, creating an environment that focuses on the entire lifecycle of an employee from onboarding to offboarding. Managers within the organization play an integral role as well as they must own and foster a positive and productive organizational culture. The current town manager and her team are very supportive of their employees.
Recruitment efforts should focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and recruiting firms should be utilized for specific positions, such as executives and those that are hard to fill. Recruitment firms can assist by being a conduit for bringing talent into the selection process who may not otherwise apply.
There also needs to be a comprehensive onboarding process so employees who come into the organization feel invested in the organization. Organizational culture and having shared core values and organizational vision are extremely important. People leave an organization if the proper culture is not fostered. Culture involves training and developing the individual employee to meet their full potential, implementing employee recognition programs on a regular basis, providing for career progression and professional development, even doing proper exit interviews to understand why the employee is leaving and how Needham can improve in areas identified. Managers should have scheduled check-ins with their employees to ensure that there is regular communication and a clear understanding about how things are going from both the employee’s and manager’s perspectives to keep employees and management working toward common and shared goals.
Specific to benefits, employees cited the attractiveness of being able to have their children attend Needham schools as an incentive. There is also interest in creating a personal time off (PTO) structure rather than having separate sick and vacation leave banks. PTO will allow for more flexibility, as well as not have the employee have to identify why here she is taking time off. In addition, it maintains privacy and is free from labeling or judgment.
With younger people entering the workforce, paid family or parental leave is an important incentive to attract potential candidates. Childcare assistance is also important to allow employees to achieve a better work-life balance and know that their employer acknowledges the high cost of childcare. In addition, a lot of employees do not work and live in the same town, so having childcare available in the town in which they work is more ideal. In order to entice employees who may not otherwise be looking for a new position when they are established with another organization, it will be more attractive to frontload PTO banks upon hire rather than to have the employee wait six months during an introductory period to be able to request time off if needed.
Incentive pay is an attractive option to encourage employees to grow and to recognize them for career progression. This can take the form of additional pay for licensing, longevity pay to reward employees who stay with Needham, or pay to recognize high performance.
Other recruiting benefits that can attract potential workforce are having flexible hours, remote work positions, and flexible workspace that may not require an employee to be onsite for 100% of their work schedule. There is no one-size-fits-all model so it is important to remember that having a variety of programs that speak to a broad audience is imperative.
Again, it is necessary to emphasize that overall town employees are satisfied and feel supported by their current town leadership. Although the organization provides comprehensive benefits for their employees, there is still room for improvement. In order to make adjustments to move toward developing well-integrated and comprehensive programs, the ideal components identified in the study will be extremely useful tools for helping develop Needham’s (and any local government organization’s) programs.
It was truly an honor to participate in the L-ICMA effort to assist Needham with their recruitment and retention concerns. We enjoyed meeting Kate Fitzpatrick and her team and cannot express enough gratitude for their insight, generosity, and hospitality. It is very meaningful to be able to explore and uncover insights within another organization’s operations. Each L-ICMA team member brings more knowledge and expertise back to their home organizations because of the unique opportunity offered through ICMA.
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