Connecting state and local government leaders
Some department vacancies are 20% to 30%, but governments are making headway filling positions and keeping workers with signing bonuses as high as $20,000 and big hourly wage hikes.
Over the decades we’ve been covering the competition between the private and public sectors for top-notch employees, we’ve argued that states and local governments couldn’t compete with corporate America on the compensation front. Instead, we’ve written that they’ve had to attract employees with the potential for career development, good benefits and a workplace culture focused on employee engagement and public service.
That’s still abundantly true, and these factors are at the heart of any successful recruitment and retention effort. But the pressures to compete with dollars are growing. In recent months, we’ve written several pieces for Route Fifty about public sector staffing difficulties, including the long-term decline in job applications and the alarming rise in turnover in many state and local governments over the last year.
Many states are facing employee shortages including the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, where the vacancy rate in 2021 was 30%. In June 2021, 20% of positions in North Carolina prisons were vacant. And in the Arizona Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol Division, a 20% vacancy rate was reported last year.
Not surprisingly, the battle to compete with pay continues to be an uphill one. In February, a statistical analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that government wage growth lagged the private sector by a wide margin, with fourth quarter 2021 private sector wages up 5% and state and local governments up only 2.7%.
Still, there are many recent examples of states acting out of necessity. One significant sign of a shift in tactics has been seen in this year’s ongoing legislative sessions. States, including ones known for their frugality, are offering larger-than-usual salary hikes, including 5% in Kansas, 5.4% in Florida and 5.5% in Missouri.
While across-the-board public sector pay increases are higher than they have been in recent years, far more dramatic actions are taking place for hard-to-fill job categories.
High turnover rates and staff shortages led Alaska, for example, to introduce a $20,000 signing bonus and moving costs for state troopers who make it through the typically arduous application process, according to Kate Sheehan, director of the Alaska Division of Personnel and Labor Relations. If troopers leave their jobs prematurely, however, they have to regurgitate the portion of the big bonus checks they received.
Other states also are employing large hiring bonuses. In Nebraska, a $15,000 bonus is being offered to new corrections corporals to deal with particularly difficult staffing shortages in the state penitentiary and a corrections treatment center.
More common are somewhat smaller hiring bonuses, such as up to $5,000 for corrections workers announced in mid-November by the Florida governor’s office. The Virginia State Police also is offering a similar bonus to new hires.
Targeted Pay Increases Common
Targeted salary increases are particularly common—aimed at both attracting new employees and keeping staff from quitting. In South Dakota, for example, the governor proposed, and the legislature approved, a 6% across-the-board salary increase in March. That was supplemented with an additional $6 million for targeted increases for employees in areas with high vacancy rates and lagging pay levels.
These changes were supported by research from a market study that selected 160 job classifications that could be benchmarked against those in other public sector entities including in six nearby states, local governments in South Dakota and the private sector.
Overall, the study showed that South Dakota's salaries lagged the total market by 10% or more in slightly more than half the job classes. “We had some jobs that were 25% to 35% below market competition. We have to make up more ground there,” says Darin Seeley, South Dakota’s HR commissioner.
Hard-to-attract skilled trade workers are among the employees who will see a hefty increase in pay. For example, Seeley says starting pay for building maintenance specialists, which include plumbers and electricians, is jumping from $20 an hour to $24 an hour—a 20% increase.
Targeted increases for employees are necessary to make sure their pay is sufficiently greater than new workers. For example, a building maintenance specialist who started in 2016 will receive a 22.3% increase—from $24.35 an hour to $29.78. As the changes are new, Seeley says he does not know how well these and other targeted raises will pay off.
In addition to its targeted prison-specific hiring bonuses, Nebraska implemented in December a 40% hourly wage hike, from $20 to $28, for corrections officer starting salaries throughout the department.
There’s solid evidence of the advantages. State Personnel Director Kevin Workman says applications rose from 34 to 96 per week—a 200% increase since November 2021. Since December, Nebraska added 267 new corrections staffers from 33 states.
These changes were “historic in many ways and unprecedented, not only at the state level, but at the national level,” says Workman.
Meanwhile, similar raises were put in place for existing staff, as well, and overtime pay was lifted until June 30, 2023 to twice normal pay rather than the traditional time and a half. Corrections officials predict that turnover will be halved in 2022.
Workman credits a strong working partnership with the Fraternal Order of Police for the discussions that led to the salary increases as well as other workforce changes. “The FOP has been an integral part of the overall marketing strategy,” he says. “It was a time to get in the yoke together and partner. We all recognized that this was an extraordinary time with extraordinary needs.”
Spreading the Word
Of course, simply offering better pay packages doesn’t do much good if potential job applicants don’t know they exist.
Pennsylvania, for example, instituted a series of salary hikes that began in 2019 for the 1,600 registered and licensed nurses who work for three executive branch departments—Human Services, Corrections and Military and Veterans Affairs, says the Office of Administration. For registered nurses, starting pay rose through several adjustments from $59,796 prior to July 1, 2019 to $78,511 in October 2021. An increase to $80,472 is planned for October 2022. Nurses also receive annual retention payments of $1,000 after one year on the job.
Word about the salary hikes was spread through an 11-month multiplatform digital and broadcasting campaign, which included all three departments that depend on nurses—a first-of-its-kind partnership for the state. A spokesman says the enterprise approach, with a short video and content developed by an in-house media production team, resulted in 9.3 million video views and 166,000 click-throughs from digital ads to the state’s job website. From March 2020 to February 2021, nurse hires increased by 40%, from 390 to 544.
The traditional benefits of jobs in the public sector, including lifestyle advantages and solid benefits, still help attract employees. But, when it comes time to pay the mortgage, put food on the table and help children pay for college, a heftier paycheck or a juicy bonus counts for a great deal.
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.