The Importance of Investing in and Celebrating the Public Works Workforce


  • McKinzie McGuire
May 21, 2024 - (6 min read)

With Support from: Joshua Yates, Director for Public Works, Birmingham, AL

National Public Works Week (NPWW) is an annual celebration of the vital role municipal public works departments play in cities, towns, and villages across the country. In every community, committed public works workers provide services that are critical to our quality of life. This NPWW, NLC is shining a spotlight on the importance of a worker-centric approach to Public Works workforce development.  

The city of Birmingham is one of 16 cities participating in the Good Jobs, Great Cities Academy, a collaborative initiative co-led by NLC and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.

Led by Mayor Randall L. Woodfin, the City of Birmingham’s commitment to its mission of ‘Putting People First’ starts within its own departments. We had the opportunity to connect with Director of Public Works, Joshua Yates, to learn more about how the City of Birmingham celebrates and invests in their public works workforce all year long.

Joshua Yates, Director for Public Works, Birmingham, AL

Why is it important to invest in and support local public works workers?

Public works workers are the backbone of essential services provided throughout the community.  Servicing roadway failures, landscaping, cleaning or clearing streets and picking up household garbage are just a few of the ways Public Works workers keep our cities moving day or night, regardless of rain, sleet, snow, wind, and extreme heat.

The City of Birmingham’s Public Works Director, Joshua Yates, has demonstrated how prioritizing the people behind those often taken for granted tasks has far-reaching community benefits.

“The Public Works Department is the ‘Boot’s on the Ground’ Department. We strive to ‘Put People First’ and that starts with our employees.” 

– Joshua Yates, City of Birmingham’s Public Works Director

We have been able to do this through higher wages, more training opportunities for advancement, a renewed focus on safety initiatives and incorporating technology and new equipment into our day-to-day operations.”

3 Strategies to Develop, Support, and Retain Local Public Works Talent

1. Prioritize Safety and Job Quality

The commitment of Public Works workers cannot be understated, and it is important that their safety is a top priority for local leaders. Providing wraparound supports and accommodations to promote health and well-being and technological interventions for safety are important places to start in terms of promoting and improving job quality and satisfaction for Public Works workers, who are oftentimes taking on strenuous and often dangerous jobs.

The City of Birmingham launched a New Waste Program across the entire city, which incorporated new waste carts for solid waste pickup, reduced and contained the waste on their roads, and allowed for automated truck pickup that reduced the number of employees collecting waste in the roadway. Waste collection in the roadway is one of the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S. This initiative was able to leverage technology to protect and promote workers and create efficiencies for the department as the employees no longer on the roadways were then able to fill other gaps in the public works and local workforce.

While it may seem simple and routine, Director Yates shared that for most public works employees, job quality and higher employee morale come from having what they need to do their jobs with pride. By closely monitoring and evaluating the quantity and quality of equipment needed and by listening to his staff’s needs, Director Yates demonstrates his commitment to the department’s safety and expertise.

2. Provide Opportunities for Learning and Advancement

To be a model employer, local leaders must prioritize learning and advancement, both for new and existing talent. Through on the job training, apprenticeship, mentorship, and more, local leaders can reap the benefits of investing in their greatest resource: their people. Municipal apprenticeship, for example, can not only help you build an accessible, resilient talent pipeline but also retain and promote the committed, talented public servants already working for your community.

The city of Birmingham, in partnership with Lawson State Community College, a local, public, historically black community college, recently offered training opportunities for a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) program. This program is a 2- or 3-week course, depending upon CDL Class B or Class A, which is free for the employee and during which the employee continues to be paid as if they were at work while they are being trained.

Promoting advancement and lifelong learning is a proven strategy for retaining important institutional knowledge, regardless of industry.

Directors of Public Works

But, when it comes to municipal public works, retaining workers builds and maintains community connection and trust. This is true in Birmingham, the home of one of the country’s longest serving public works workers, Mr. Tyrone Ward, who has worked for the City for 55 years.

3. Review Compensation and Benefits Packages

Local leaders should work with their HR Departments to estimate and compare the cost or retention with the cost of attracting, hiring, and training new talent. With this information, local leaders can make more effective, informed decisions about compensation and benefits, providing municipal HR teams with the resources they need to remain competitive in the market.

In 2023, Mayor Woodfin scored a major win for municipal workers by bumping up the minimum wage for city employees to $15.00/hour. Director Yates reflected that this wage hike significantly boosted both applicant numbers and staff retention in the public works department. Before the change, more than half of his 630 public works team members could have been earning less than $15.00/hour. In addition to increased earning potential for both current and new public works hires, drivers and operators saw their paychecks grow, too, as a market response. And the numbers do not lie, in 2021, vacancies in public works plummeted from 200 to around 80 – a 60% decrease that has and will continue to have a direct and positive impact on local quality of life and service provision. But Director Yates isn’t stopping there, he has his sights set on reducing the number of vacancies to 30 or fewer by 2025. 

While NPPW will come to a close at the end of this week, celebrating and investing in public works workers should be yearlong. You can start today by:

  • Express appreciation publicly and share the stories of your local public works heroes to raise awareness of the field.
  • Assessing policies and creating programs to promote job quality.
  • Leveraging proven models for developing and retaining talent.

Are Apprenticeships Right for Your Community?

Learn how youth apprenticeships are impacting the economy of Frederick, Maryland. Apprenticeship programs allow youth to earn competitive wages while obtaining the relevant training and experience to start their careers. The City of Frederick, Maryland, is launching youth apprenticeship programs aimed at connecting young people with opportunities to transform their lives and build a more resilient and sustainable community.

About the Author

McKinzie McGuire

About the Author

McKinzie McGuire is a Postsecondary and Workforce Success Senior Program Specialist at the National League of Cities.