Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | To be competitive in this challenging new work environment, governments not only need to evaluate their salaries and benefits, but also change the way they recruit, develop, engage and retain talent.
Recently, after a presentation I gave about the new workplace, including the “great resignation” (or as I call it, the ”great reassessment”), someone asked me where all the employees who are quitting are going. I quickly answered, “to better jobs.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only a small minority of the four million or so employees quitting each month are exiting the workforce, mainly through retirement. The rest are moving on—or up.
Some employees are leaving to take higher-paying jobs, especially those in low-wage positions. At two other recent events I spoke at, participants said their jurisdictions are losing employees because some of their jobs pay less than McDonald’s.
That’s just wrong, especially in state and local government. Nothing against McDonald’s—I've consumed more than my share (admit it, you like McDonald’s too)—but government shouldn’t be competing with the fast-food industry for talent.
Pay, however, isn’t the only factor influencing massive job movements. For many public servants, it’s the flexibility—or lack of it—in their working environment.
The pandemic-driven change in where and how many people work is a permanent evolution. I've been in the world of work for more years than I want to admit and what we’ve experienced in the past two years has been the biggest change in my lifetime (save maybe for the introduction of computers). Someone even said recently it’s the most momentous change in work since the Industrial Revolution. Not sure about that because I don’t go back quite that far, but any way you slice it, it’s big.
In government, where talent is really the only resource we have, we must be competitive. This means allowing employees to continue to work remotely, at least part-time, where possible.
Although many public servants like those in law enforcement, firefighting, corrections, public works, health care, etc. can’t phone or video it in, there are still ways to provide flexibility. For instance, some public sector organizations are expanding the use of alternative work schedules, providing starting and ending time flexibility, and giving employees more freedom to deal with personal issues during the workday. Some government agencies are allowing these employees to work remotely for at least one day each week.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways government can attract and retain talent in this tough environment. Here are some examples:
Transform recruiting and hiring. Government needs to go way beyond “post and pray” to attract top talent. This means recruiting aggressively, using social media effectively and ditching dry, dense language in job ads that simply mimic position descriptions.
To overcome its branding and image problem, government needs to market (yes, market—it’s not a bad word) the many ways that public service makes a positive difference in the lives of the people government serves. No one wants a boring job.
State and local governments must also fix the hiring process, which I heard someone once describe as “hiring the best of the desperate.” Meaning, the final candidates are the hardy souls willing to fight their way through what is too often a long, complicated and user-unfriendly process.
Build employee engagement. Engaged employees have a strong commitment to their organization and the people they serve. Decades of research have documented that a high level of engagement drives superior organizational performance—and helps retain talent. Unpublished research by my organization shows that engaged employees are up to three times more likely to say their organizations are successful, and high-engagement organizations have up to 43% lower turnover.
Building a high-engagement workforce means creating a positive employee experience. That is, ensuring that employees’ interactions with their employer are as positive as possible. These “moments that matter” include the entire employee lifecycle—recruiting and hiring, onboarding, supervision, training and development, recognition, performance management, pay and benefits, diversity and inclusion and employee well-being.
Government also needs to understand what happens internally affects how outsiders, including potential applicants, view the organization. For example, the Indeed job site and others show not only job vacancies but employees’ reviews of the hiring organization. We know job seekers read these before they apply.
Which of the following actual employee reviews of your agency would you want your potential applicants to see? “Run fast and run far!” Or, “Great place to work with ample opportunities for advancement and growth.”
Understand turnover. Most organizations know what their overall turnover rate is, but they also need to look deeper to understand who is leaving. A low overall turnover rate can mask problems. Government employers must understand who’s leaving—and why? Are you losing:
- Best performers
- New hires
- Employees in specific demographic groups
- Senior leaders, managers or supervisors
- Talent in individual work units, occupations or pay levels
And if so, why?
By analyzing attrition data, the organization can understand what it needs to do to minimize unwanted turnover.
Listen to employees. A common refrain today is, “Don’t stay where you’re not heard.” Employees want to be heard and employers need to listen. How else can the organization know what employees care about and what aspects of the employee experience are and aren’t working?
Our Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement conducts employee surveys across the nation and we’re seeing more public sector organizations systematically reaching out to their employees, achieving high response rates and acting on the employee survey results. As a result, they are enhancing the employee experience and driving employee engagement.
The world of work has changed permanently, and the ways government attracts and retains talent must also change. What Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said about the private sector is also applicable to government: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.”
Want to know more about state and local government workforce issues? Watch Route Fifty’s State of the SLG Workforce free virtual event recorded on June 29.
Bob Lavigna, author of the book Engaging Government Employees, is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a division of CPS HR Services, an independent government agency.
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