Connecting state and local government leaders
New survey findings reveal that many workers are interested in public sector jobs, but get bogged down in the application phase.
Lately, the word “crisis” is being applied to public sector hiring as frequently as “crumbling” is attached to infrastructure, “raging” to wildfires or “skyrocketing” to inflation.
Many individual governments are hotly pursuing efforts to improve their capacity to recruit and retain good workers. As we’ve written, these have solid potential. But, despite these fledgling efforts, in 2022 the situation has only gotten worse, based on reliable data from NEOGOV, a technology company that contracts with 2,200 state and local governments for software application services.
In 2021, we reported on job statistics from NEOGOV that showed a 32% drop in the number of applications received for each public sector job between 2019 and 2021. At year’s end, the company updated that to 35%.
New NEOGOV data, made available to Route Fifty, points to an additional 56% drop in applications per open job from 2021 to 2022. About a quarter of all current public sector job postings are getting seven applicants or fewer.
“We have seen the number of applicants per job dropping for years, but this year the drop was dramatic, so we wanted to understand why,” says Shane Evangelist, CEO at NEOGOV. In May, the company fielded two surveys, one of job applicants and one of human resource officials. “We surveyed job seekers to gain some insight. We also wanted to understand how HR directors were handling the reduced supply of job seekers and whether the lack of applicants is impacting service to citizens.”
Of the 299 HR officials who answered the May survey, 79% said that they were not finding enough applicants to fill open positions. Many of the results of the applicant shortage are visible. The governments said the shortages are:
- Contributing to staff burnout (82%).
- Leading to increased overtime (64%).
- Requiring more shared services and shared employees (31%).
- Making cutbacks in services (20%).
What are the root causes behind this depressing trend? The 609 job applicants who responded to the NEOGOV survey applied for government jobs between 2019 and 2022, so their experiences may partially reflect the way applicants were treated before the pandemic. Of those individuals, 30.5% hold government jobs, 35% work for the private sector, 12.5% work for nonprofits and 22% are not working.
One significant finding from these respondents is that, despite the bleak application numbers, many of the individuals surveyed genuinely preferred working for government than for the private sector. The ability to learn, grow professionally and serve the public are often viewed as attractive attributes of government work.
But the answers to open-ended questions exposed some of the impediments to taking a government job. These included slow hiring, limited communication with government representatives during the process and complex applications.
"It took forever,” one survey respondent wrote. “By the time someone reached out to me about a background check, I had been offered (and started training for) a position in the private sector."
Another said: “It is simply unacceptable how long the hiring process takes, especially within the medical field when we can apply to civilian hospitals, interview, and start working in less than a month.”
The lack of communication or response from government to a job application also elicited many negative comments, such as these: You “cannot speak to any individual.” “When applying for government jobs, I often do not receive a response or feedback. Applications tend to sit in 'reviewed'. If I am not considered for the position, it is helpful feedback to know why or whether the position was filled.”
A third complaint that came up frequently focused on the effort of applying to government – the lengthy applications and background checks and the complexity of the applications. “Getting transcripts, references and completing the application and questions was time consuming and labor intensive, as well as repetitive” wrote one job applicant.
Positive Steps Forward
In fairness, there were also positive comments, albeit substantially fewer, about the job application experience, including praise of online applications, trackable progress and good communication. That’s not a surprise to us. From our many conversations with HR directors in cities, counties and states, we know that many are working on these issues.
In an April column, for example, we wrote about Missouri’s concerted effort to reduce its hiring time from an average of 65 days in 2020 to 58 days in 2021. To do this, it centralized hiring data, vastly simplified application processes and took advantage of the knowledge it could gain by comparing departments to each other to uncover promising practices in speedier departments that could be shared with areas in which hiring was slower.
Other human resource directors in states, cities and counties throughout the U.S. are making similar efforts. Our observations are mirrored by those of Evangelist, who says a number of government agencies are simplifying the hiring process, removing steps and making it easier to apply.
“We are also seeing many agencies using text communication and texting directly with job seekers,” he said.
The NEOGOV survey uncovered many internal steps that human resource officials also are taking to heighten their ability to fill jobs. For example, 38% said they were reducing their minimum qualifications, 30% have expanded remote work options, and 28% have increased schedule flexibility.
But job applicants reveal just how far many entities have to go to reinvigorate a job hiring process that can be far too time consuming, impersonal and, as one applicant wrote, “slooow”.
In the current environment, the public sector faces constant competition from private companies that can offer richer compensation. To compete successfully, more governments need to deal both with the reputation that comes from past practices and with their need to modernize systems and improve poor recruiting and application processes that are still prevalent in many places.
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.