Connecting state and local government leaders
Public sector workplaces are expected to change dramatically in the coming years, with major implications for employees and agencies. In this special series, Route Fifty explores what’s ahead.
This article is the first in a three-part series about the future of the state and local government workforce. You can find the second article in the series here.
State and local government workforces have always been in flux as the services they deliver change and new challenges emerge that they must confront. Not so long ago, few places were thinking about hiring chief data officers, equity officers or heat officers. But in the last several years, the evolution of the government workforce has accelerated significantly.
“I jokingly say that the pace of change over the last 20 years is a leisurely stroll compared to the pace of change that I see in the next 20 years,” says Ryan Oakes, public sector global managing director at Accenture, a professional services and consulting firm.
In fact, in an October 2020 report that looked across multiple industries, the World Economic Forum estimated that in just the next five years, 44% of the skills workers needed “to perform their roles effectively” would evolve.
Over the last several months, we’ve talked with dozens of individuals from private sector consultancies, government membership associations, local and state human resource departments and other agencies to gather thoughts on how government jobs will change in the short and longer-term. These conversations, combined with information garnered from reports, are feeding this three-part series of columns for Route Fifty about what the state and local government workforce will look like in the coming years.
The roles and responsibilities of many state and local government employees will be vastly different 10 or 20 years from now, as artificial intelligence, remote work, a generational transition and other factors transform the nature of government. For workers, that will mean both new opportunities and possibly some uncomfortable disruption. For managers, re-imagining the workplace must begin now, or events will overtake their ability to successfully cope with what's ahead.
A Plethora of Predictions
The automation of routine tasks and the use of robotic assistants are an inevitable part of the future of government work. Consider the recent experimental use of a robotic litter-picking device in the city of San Marcos, Texas. The city gave the device positive reviews. “It picks up litter that normally is done with a bag and a stick, reducing costs from $8 an acre to $3 an acre,” says Ron Holifield, a former city manager in Texas, chief executive officer of Strategic Government Resources and interim director of a newly revamped Alliance for Innovation. The Alliance for Innovation is now actively developing a process for local governments that will evaluate and report on new technologies like this to accelerate their successful adoption.
Meanwhile, a Deloitte survey of 11,000 business leaders found that 61% were already redesigning jobs based on artificial intelligence, robotics and “new business models,” according to a 2019 report from the Deloitte Center for Government Insights. The pace of change may be slower in government than in the private sector, but there are still clear examples of significant shifts that are underway in a wide variety of cities, counties and states.
“We've got to think about jobs as being constantly evolving, instead of eternally static,” says Holifield.
Technology has already dramatically reduced clerical and secretarial positions and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a toll-taker. Looking largely at the private sector and based on input from business leaders, the World Economic Forum predicted in its 2020 report that by 2025 redundant roles would decline from 15.4% of the workforce to 9%, while emerging professions would grow from 7.8% to 13.5%.
The loss of routine jobs – and the increasing demand for flexibility – also paints a picture of the future government worker as one who has more leeway, more opportunity for strategic thought, and more chances for career advancement. For some workers, this shift could be exciting to seize on, while for others it could feel overwhelming. “What we see and anticipate is the job functions expanding and broadening in a lot of ways,” says Shane Black, chief human resources officer in Ohio. “The expectations of those coming in the door will be to be given a wide variety of different experiences on a daily basis.”
Widening the Net
The shortage of qualified workers to fill positions that already exist is a problem that almost all states and localities are confronting. Fortunately, as the workforce evolves, solutions are available. One approach involves taking advantage of in-place workers, whose jobs are becoming unnecessary, by retraining them to take on new tasks.
Based on his experience as city manager in four Texas cities, Holifield firmly believes that his employees who worked in the field were capable of doing higher level work but lacked the training to do so.
While training has traditionally been a low-level priority for many governments, that appears to be changing. Says Sheryl Webb, director of the division of personnel in West Virginia, “Training was always the section that thought if somebody has to go, it would be them. That is now the section that we’re having to expand.”
Not only are there opportunities for people to change fields when provided with support, there are growing chances for people to work at a distance from the home office. Of course, this doesn’t work for jobs that require that people be on the scene, like correctional officers or state police. But, if someone can work from home every day of the year, there’s less pressure for that home to be located in state or municipal borders.
In the past, this shift would have been challenged by residency requirements for public sector workers. But these rules have been falling away for years in local governments. And while some state statutes and tax regulations stand in the way of paying employees who live elsewhere, increasingly we’ve encountered examples of state employees who live outside state borders, sometimes in a completely different part of the country.
The Size of the Workforce
In the short term, many individuals believe that more jobs will be created than destroyed. The World Economic Forum has a long list of jobs that will prosper, often tied to continued technological progress. It also notes that there are multiple jobs in which humans “are expected to retain their comparative advantage” against machines. These include “managing, advising, decision-making, reasoning, communicating and interacting” – the kinds of job functions that will be needed as clerical and manual tasks subside.
Longer term, there’s a distinct possibility that the total number of state and local government jobs may decline. This may happen quite naturally because of changing demographics that will leave fewer potential job takers after the baby boom generation departs from the workplace.
That said, the idea of diminishing government jobs causes considerable alarm to many current government employees. In three separate brainstorming sessions with HR officials from nine states, suggested by us and organized by Leslie Scott, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, fear was often brought up as a potential inhibitor of change.
“The challenge is getting long-time employees comfortable with change,” says Scott. “We’ve heard from HR directors that some employees perceive new ways of operating as a threat to their own continued employment, though this doesn’t need to be the case.”
On the Cusp of Generational Change
Notwithstanding the nature of the jobs, the workforce itself is inevitably altering as baby boomers retire and individuals in their early 20s begin their careers.
Kristin Scroggin, a generational expert who we first wrote about in a December 2021 Route Fifty column, sees distinct differences among the generations based on the times they were raised. “People in their 60’s and 70’s prefer face-to-face contact,” she says. “They want to be able to breathe each other’s air. They want to be able to read non-verbals. They want to hear the pitch in your voice. When you go digital, you take a lot of that out.”
Some of the most dramatic changes will likely come about when adaptable millennials, who have grown up with constant technological and social change, move into positions of power and are supported by the next generation -- individuals who are now in their early to middle 20s and are the first truly digital natives.
“The millennials will inspire the change and find the funding and the Gen Zs, with their technological brains, will be the worker bees,” says Scroggin. “The combination of those two becomes the next revolution.”
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