Top Local Workforce Challenges: Recruitment, Retention, Compensation

Having a stable job, and being able to retire comfortably, are part of the American dream. But because of complicating factors, such as a changing economic landscape and automation, these previously stalwart aspects of many careers have started to disappear.

Unfortunately, local government jobs aren’t immune to these changes. But what exactly is happening, and why?

As the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, ICMA-RC and the National League of Cities prepare for our fall workforce summit in Fort Lauderdale, Public Sector Workforce 2030: Planning for the Next Generation of State and Local Government Employees, we’ve continued to analyze trends and guide our members towards tried and true solutions.

In 2019, there are many public sector workforce trends worth celebrating — as well as a few that local leaders should address.

New research finds that state and local governments continue to face challenges filling a wide array of positions. Policing, engineering, maintenance work/labor, skilled trades, dispatch, and information technology/network top the list of job types that are hardest — and getting harder — to fill.

The results also indicate that top workforce issues for state and local governments are:

  • Competitive compensation packages (87 percent),
  • Recruitment and retention of qualified workers (87 percent),
  • Employee morale (86 percent), employee engagement (84 percent) and
  • Leadership development (74 percent)

The research, State and Local Government Workforce: 2019 Survey, was conducted online by the Center for State and Local Government. The results are based upon the responses of 335 public human resource professionals who are members of IPMA-HR and/or NASPE.

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These workforce issues are further complicated for government leaders given the tight labor market and longer-term employment projections. State and local workforces have a projected growth of 3.8 percent for state employees and 7.4 percent for local employees from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To help address some of these issues, public employers are increasingly turning to the gig economy, the study found. Some 20 percent of jurisdictions indicated that they are filling more than one percent of their total workforce needs via the gig economy, and administrative, accounting and IT support are the positions most commonly filled by gig workers.

The good news from the study is that benefits continue to a be a strength for state and local governments. A full 88 percent indicated that their jurisdictions’ benefits are competitive with the labor market.

But at the same time, some policymakers are modifying benefits, which could have longer-term workforce impacts. For example:

  • Thirty six percent of state and local governments have shifted more healthcare costs from the employer to employees,
  • Twenty eight percent have implemented wellness programs, and
  • Eleven percent have moved employees to high deductible plans with health savings accounts.

Regarding retirement benefits, 12 percent have increased employee contributions, 11 percent have decreased pension benefits, and nine percent have increased pension eligibility requirements.

Do you feel the benefits compensation you offer is competitive with the labor market?

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Overall, the findings point to the need for state and local governments to continue to innovate in order to attract and retain qualified workers. Approaches like delivering meaningful employee development programs, providing effective onboarding, and offering flexible schedules and paid family leave are options local leaders should consider.

A city, town or village is only as strong as its public sector workforce. By prioritizing recruitment, retention and compensation, and focusing on local pain points, your whole community stands to benefit.


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About the Author: Joshua Franzel is president and chief executive officer of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, a non-partisan non-profit that helps local and state governments become knowledgeable and competitive employers so they can attract and retain a talented and committed workforce. More information is available at