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In an effort to attract and retain workers, the department is taking on the role of developer to provide affordable housing. It is just one way the public sector is working to fill vacancies.
In Colorado’s ski towns, the snow is really only fun on the slopes. That’s where the people who plow the roads come in. They keep these communities safe and mobile. But sky-high home prices are keeping them from residing in the very mountain towns they serve, and it’s fueling a shortage of road maintenance operators.
To fix it, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is taking on the role of developer and building homes for its employees.
It’s no secret the public sector nationwide is struggling to fill vacant positions. As of November, there were 881,000 job openings in state and local government. As agencies attempt to attract and retain workers, they’re getting creative. While not all may be going so far as to build housing, they are looking beyond compensation to fill vacancies.
A Situation That’s Snow Fun
As of Nov. 1, 20% of CDOT’s road maintenance positions were vacant, according to Stacia Sellers, an agency spokeswoman. There are several factors contributing to the shortage, including competitive pay from the private sector and the hazardous nature of the work. But for workers in these mountain communities, housing is a major issue.
With investors and second-homebuyers scooping up these mountain properties, it’s difficult for road maintenance workers to find any housing at all, let alone affordable housing. Since 2018, CDOT has offered road maintenance workers housing stipends. Today, those can be up to $24,000 annually, depending on location.
But a housing stipend isn’t much use when there are no homes available, so the agency is spending about $10 million on new projects that will provide housing to snowplow operators and other road maintenance specialists.
About $6.5 million will be used to build 12 to 14 single-family homes in Fairplay and another $4 million in Frisco for 11 apartments. Both projects are scheduled to break ground this spring, and the agency tentatively expects to complete them in the summer of 2024 and the spring of 2025, respectively.
Providing housing is not only practical, according to Sellers, but also a way to ensure its employees feel their work is meaningful.
“State essential employees who live in the community they serve and belong to that community are more inclined to be connected to the residents and their jobs, beyond a paycheck,” she said.
Making housing more accessible is one of several initiatives the agency is taking to recruit new employees. The state also has a new commercial driver's license training program from which the agency has hired about 100 employees over the last few months.
Why Build Housing When You Could Instead Boost Salaries?
It may seem easier to bump wages than build housing, but increasing salaries is outside CDOT’s jurisdiction. That endeavor is left to the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration.
In fact, adjusting salaries is a challenge across governments, said Leslie Scott Parker, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives.
“They're always a year or two behind,” she said, “because unless the legislature makes some changes, it's very difficult to adjust compensation and things to keep up with the private sector.”
Much like CDOT, where changing salaries isn’t an option, organizations are looking at other means of compensation and incentives that focus on improving the lives of employees. That could include significant hiring bonuses—like $20,000 for state troopers in Alaska—and career development opportunities to attract staff, according to Scott Parker.
And with stiff competition from the private sector, attractive benefits and incentives are crucial to filling vacancies in the public sector, said Bob Lavigna, a public-sector human resources expert.
“I think there’s a growing realization now that we're in a new world of work, and we have to be more creative—even in government—not only around compensation but also around benefits.”
Lavigna noted that remote and hybrid work is one of the most common demands of job seekers today. But where remote work might not be an option, there are other benefits organizations can offer workers. For example, transit organizations should note concerns around scheduling, and consider allowing employees to adjust their schedules, eliminating split-shifts or rotating which employees work overnight shifts.
Phased retirement—which allows workers to work part-time while taking advantage of some retirement benefits—is another way to keep employees in the workforce who may otherwise leave, Lavigna added.
For now, it’s difficult to measure just how effective different incentives are, Scott Parker said. Many have just been introduced in the last few years, and the pandemic changed the conversations human resources personnel have about what employees want.
“It's going to be interesting to see what works and hopefully we'll have some data and some information … to see what's been attractive to employees,” she said.
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.