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COMMENTARY | Many public sector workers are leaving their jobs. Here’s why I am staying.
I know what you are thinking: Why would someone leave the lucrative private sector—with opportunities to climb the corporate ladder, receive crazy bonuses and maybe even private jet perks—to take a government job?
And yet that’s exactly what I did in 2016 when I joined the public sector workforce as the chief HR officer for the city of Memphis.
Like many people, I had heard all the stereotypes and misperceptions about workers in government – civil servants are lazy, slow to change, narrow minded, etc. You get the picture. Even in my daughter’s favorite movie, “Zootopia”, they depict a government agency worker as a sloth.
But I had a very different and personal perception of local government.
My grandfather served three terms as a city councilman in Gary, Indiana. That allowed me to see up close the impact a good public servant could have on a community. And it’s what inspired and motivated me to take the leap to public service.
I still see that same level of commitment to service in those I work with. I see people under-resourced working with what they have. I see people dedicated to an organization even though they are criticized, dismissed and wrongly judged by outsiders.
All of this has fueled my transformative mission to facilitate change and harness potential.
As the “Great Resignation” rolls on, we see that people are soul searching. They are trying to discover what’s most fulfilling professionally and how to balance personal commitments. This is true for both public and private sector employees.
No longer are people just changing jobs—they’re leaving the industries to which they’ve committed to for years in search of something completely different. In 2021, according to SHRM, a record-breaking 47.8 million Americans resigned from their positions. Nearly 4 million people quit every month, topping 2019’s monthly average of 3.5 million.
After doing some soul-searching of my own, I realized I’m inspired—now more than ever—to stay the course as Memphis’ chief HR officer, as there is so much great work to be done. Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said, “I believe that as public servants, we have a shared goal - to deliver to Americans the service they deserve and expect.”
My work not only directly affects the quality of life for our employees, but also has a major impact on the quality of life for the more than 600,000 citizens we serve. Because of the quest for this positive impact, I and my team are motivated to solve complex HR problems. We are inspired to be innovative in our approaches to talent management and recruiting, to investing in and using cloud-based technology, to going paperless and ensuring that we use data insights to make the best decisions for our community.
Each day we go out of our way to think differently—focusing on partnering with other agencies and engaging on many levels, including social media, to improve talent recruitment. We also challenge ourselves by being fully transparent about our compensation, as well as using data to inform how we make improvements. We often update our website to ensure we are telling our city’s story in a compelling manner: One that helps others see the value in working for city government and hopefully, motivates them to join us in our pursuit to make life better for our citizens.
A Glimmer of Hope
The life of a government employee is hard. There are days when things are challenging. Days where because people second guess your work, employees post negative feedback on social media, budget limitations, etc. Yet, there’s still a fire inside that pushes us to forge ahead.
You see a glimmer of hope in the form of a smile from someone who gets promoted, a candidate’s laugh from getting a job offer or a compliment from a director for solving their concern. And you realize that all the planning and hard work, and everything in between, is worth it. Then you look up six years later and you see a transformed organization, with a new culture, and you smile because you know you’ve truly made a difference.
I would like to challenge other public sector workers to renew their commitment to their municipalities, knowing that they have the potential to make a great impact on their communities.
I believe that the public sector can be the trailblazer instead of the trail laggard. As the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan said, “We call ourselves public servants but I'll tell you this: we as public servants must set an example for the rest of the nation.” This is absolutely true.
Why do I stay? Because I desire and aspire to serve my community and others at the highest level. I’m blessed to do this work without shame or pride, knowing that I wake up every day to help someone else. I am a public servant to make life better for others.
What could be better than that?
Alex Smith has served as the chief human resources officer for Memphis, Tennessee since 2016. She has revolutionized the city’s HR initiatives using HR cloud technology and modernized practices. Her HR management experience includes time with Brightstar, Target and Microsoft.
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