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Recruiting for public safety jobs can be difficult these days. One locality is offering not only signing bonuses of up to $15,000, but also relocation packages of $5,000 and $10,000.
Like other local governments around the country, Memphis, Tennessee, has struggled over the past couple years to recruit and retain workers.
The city's resignation rate climbed by 40% in 2021 from 2020, with some employees departing for other public sector jobs, some switching career tracks and others leaving for family reasons, explained Alex Smith, the city's chief human resources officer.
“We are in a very unique labor market right now," Smith said during an interview that aired this week as part of Route Fifty's Follow the Money series. "Every HR leader that I'm talking to is really wrestling with this idea around this higher resignation rate and what to do there," she added. “I think we're all really stretching ourselves to try to do what we can to hire as effectively and as equitably as we can."
Maintaining adequate staffing levels has been especially challenging for Memphis' police and fire departments. To help with the labor shortages, the city has turned to not only hiring bonuses—as other localities have done in recent years—but also relocation payments.
Eligible police hires can get signing bonuses of $15,000, as well as $10,000 in relocation assistance. For firefighters, the bonus and relocation payments are each $5,000. The program requires workers to stay with the city for at least four years or pay back part of the money.
To fund this recruiting push, Memphis tapped its $161 million of federal pandemic aid from the American Rescue Plan Act. In a plan approved last year, the city set aside $13.5 million over three years for public safety recruitment incentives and staff support for recruiting.
Smith said that the cash perks have helped the city compete in a tight labor market. Although it's hard to pinpoint exactly how effective the programs have been because the city also ramped up social media and marketing campaigns to help with recruitment.
But Memphis has hired over 160 firefighters and about 180 police officers with sign-on bonuses, Smith said. Meanwhile, about 57 firefighters, but only around three police recruits, have taken the city up on the relocation payments.
"From my standpoint, it's an effective tool to help us get people in the door," Smith said of the incentives.
Marc Ott, executive director and CEO of the International City/County Management Association, speaking with Route Fifty staff on Wednesday, noted that local governments across the country continue to struggle with fallout from the so-called Great Resignation. "I think you'll find that the vacancy rate is pretty high," he said.
He pointed out that many governments are trying to use creative approaches, including signing bonuses, to attract talent. "Everybody is searching and experimenting to see what works," he said.
In the private sector, relocation payments are relatively common. An online survey Atlas Van Lines conducted in February of 533 company decision-makers who are involved in relocating employees, found 46% offer full reimbursement of relocation expenses, while 38% provide lump sums. The typical corporate lump sum payment, the report said, was between $10,000 and $12,499.
Some of the public workers who have relocated to Memphis, Smith said, have been drawn there because the city has a lower cost of living compared to their previous locations, while also being a large enough metro area that there are a variety of professional opportunities available.
Smith said that prior to 2021 the city had not experimented with signing bonuses. "It is unique for us," she said. "But the labor market really pushed us."