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Rising turnover in state and local government has compounded problems of staff shortages that lead to mandatory overtime, employee burnout and compromised service delivery.
We’ve written a fair amount for Route Fifty about the ways in which difficulties in hiring for jobs with state and local governments have led to understaffing and difficulties in providing services. But that’s only half the story.
Once someone has been hired, they need to stick around. As high turnover rates demonstrate, keeping people in their government jobs is a significant challenge from coast to coast.
Missouri is a particularly powerful example of out-of-control turnover rates. “It’s a total upwards trajectory,” says Casey Osterkamp, director of the Division of Personnel in Missouri. As of December, the state's 12-month annual turnover rate was 27.4% statewide, as compared to 18% in 2015.
That’s just the average. For the state’s 3,000 corrections officers, the current turnover rate is 51%. But that’s not even the highest rate of employee departure: That’s held by food service assistants in the state’s Department of Mental Health, who have a turnover rate of 75%.
Think about that number for a moment. For every four people working shoulder by shoulder in those jobs, three of them will have quit within a year.
This kind of turnover rate puts huge pressure on the state to hire new people at a speed that’s likely out of line with any realistic expectations. But there’s a ripple effect—or more accurately, a giant cresting wave of problems. For example, “with high turnover and the inability to hire, we’re seeing a huge increase in mandatory overtime, which obviously kills morale,” says Osterkamp.
A Nationwide Concern
While other entities may confront lower turnover rates than Missouri, the problem is widespread. Turnover steadily rose both in the public and private sectors during 2021 and into the beginning of this year.
That’s in contrast to experiences during the first year of the pandemic when employees were initially reluctant to leave their jobs in an uncertain economy. Now, “month over month, the increase in turnover has been at record highs,” says Jim Harter, chief workplace scientist at Gallup, a global analytics and advice firm, which has produced extensive research on turnover, its causes and solutions over many years.
A December legislative audit in Utah noted, for example, that teacher turnover has led to shortages and the need to rely on a growing number of teachers who have had limited experience. In Minnesota, meanwhile, public defenders, testifying to a House committee hearing warned that clients—generally people who are unable to afford their own attorneys-- are suffering because of high staff turnover, combined with uncompetitive pay and too high caseloads.
The problems of high turnover rates go beyond the need for more overtime as is the case in Missouri and elsewhere. People who rely on government for vital services can easily suffer when the person they were dealing with on Monday has changed by Friday. Consider turnover among child welfare case workers who are helping to establish secure family situations for children who have been temporarily removed from their homes. When case workers leave their jobs, “there can be a devastating impact on children and families who need help,” says Robin Leake, acting executive director of the Butler Institute for Families and a professor of social work at the University of Denver.
Somewhat less poignant, but very problematic, are the impacts of turnover on basic government functions. “Significant deficiencies” and “material weaknesses” in Gainesville, Florida’s financial reporting were attributed in part by the state’s auditor general to “significant turnover resulting in a lack of institutional knowledge and limited staff availability ...”
Meanwhile, a dramatic jump in the number of people in New Orleans jails who are awaiting court dates – some for more than a year—has also been partly attributed to high turnover rates—in this case among prosecutors and public defenders.
Not a New Problem
In high-stress fields, the turnover problem isn’t entirely new, though the rates have been accelerating, at least in part because of the pandemic. According to Leake, who is also project manager of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, turnover has been a serious problem in the child welfare field for many years: “We’ve seen average turnover rates between 20% and 40% that haven’t budged.”
“But we’re definitely hearing about an increase now,” she says. “There’s been an outcry from agencies everywhere and calls for help because as bad as it was before, it’s worse now.”
One of the problems in Missouri is the very stagnant pay levels that have put salaries for many of the state’s positions far behind public market rates, a problem that Gov. Mike Parson hopes to begin to address with a proposal to hike employee salaries across the board by 5.5% and set a more competitive baseline wage for state workers of $15 an hour. His proposal, which was outlined in an article by Bill Lucia in Route Fifty last month, is under debate by the legislature.
But while compensation increases may help alleviate some of the turnover problem, research by Gallup shows the importance of multiple other factors, including employee engagement, employee well-being and managerial leadership. In one Gallup study, workers in both the private and public sectors were surveyed in March 2021 and again in October. High or low rates of engagement and worker well-being closely predicted who stayed or left their jobs by the second survey.
Turnover Factors Interrelated
Many of the factors that affect employees are interrelated. “Managers have a lot to do with engagement and if people are disengaged, they’ll leave for another job that pays more,” says Harter.
While many states and localities are dealing with escalating rates of turnover in early 2022, some governments have insulated themselves somewhat through policies instituted over time.
Jefferson County, Colorado is a good example. According to Jennifer Fairweather, director of human resources in that county, preliminary data puts the turnover rate around 19%—far higher than the usual 9% to 14%. But she believes that those numbers are somewhat better than they would have been had the county not focused attention on developing programs that encourage employees to stay put.
This includes career development and active efforts to move employees through job series and promote them to higher level roles in the organization.
Jefferson County is also focused on providing a flexible workplace and the potential for remote and hybrid work. Fairweather, who is president of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, also believes the county’s decision in 2020 to move to a four-day workweek, has been helpful in preventing more employees from seeking work elsewhere.
In addition, the county has expanded mental health services for employees, partnering with an organization that helps workers get in touch immediately with therapists who are available in virtual sessions.
These and other actions, Fairweather says, “sets us apart from other organizations that have not been as progressive. And it has helped prevent our turnover from increasing even more.”
That’s certainly fortunate for Jefferson County, but there’s an ironic twist to the tale of turnover. The staff needed to foster an environment that will help keep people loyal to their jobs are in short supply. One reason: There are high turnover rates in the cadre of experienced staff available to provide the extra support and analysis that is often cited as necessary for bringing the rates down.
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.
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