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Creating a Diverse Workforce with Roadblocks

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Peter Melan
July 15, 2019

The recent police shooting in South Bend, Indiana created a media storm and re-opened a sore that most municipalities face on a daily basis; how to create a diverse workforce within the confines of the law. How does an administrator employ staff that represent the diversity of the municipality? In South Bend, public outcries regarding the police department not truly reflecting the diversity of the city has been part of a headline that is complicated by another fact—the Mayor is currently a candidate for President. This feat is easier said than done and has its own brand of challenges.

As an example, police departments have strict hiring guidelines. Most police departments require a thorough application, physical agility test, written exam, background check and interview. This is standard practice and may deviate based on city/state regulations. In Pennsylvania, third-class cities must conform to additional requirements such as providing military preference to those who have served our country. Those applicants are given additional points when finalizing scores.

The preference to hire a diverse workforce in a department such as police is extremely difficult and is often overlooked when attention is placed on our city, as in the example of South Bend. Many municipalities wish to have a workforce that is indicative of the population it serves. However the challenge is far greater than the intended purpose, furthering animosity and fueling anger amongst constituents.

To create a sense of inclusion, administrators along with HR could begin discussions with local civic leaders, schools and other community outreach agencies. Ironically, a lack of communication and clear direction adds to the level of frustration but could easily be resolved. This problem could be aided by merely creating transparency in the process and encouraging all to apply through local hiring events that are conveniently located, and held at accessible times. Having information sessions is another way to inform potential applicants of current openings and provide assistance on how to apply in addition to having staff on-hand to answer any potential questions.

These minor enhancements to the application process could easily be integrated into police and fire positions where the application is additionally complicated and requires physical agility as well as a written exam. To encourage additional applicants, one could have information sessions throughout their municipality, and also add training classes and exam preparation classes. For a majority of the population who may seek this type of employment, the length of time could span years over the timeframe of college or graduating high school. The amount of knowledge lost during that transition time and when a written exam is given for either department could be minimized with a few classes. Additionally, applications could contact a local school or university where volunteers could offer in-class assistance in preparation for the exam. Another potential idea is to partner with a local physical fitness company to offer a reduced cost to help applicants train for the test.

The most important factor to consider when trying to implement diversity is communicating. The fundamental lack of communication in public administration is staggering and seems to improve for some municipalities but most are unable to maintain constant information. The reliance on social media has become increasingly popular, yet websites are left outdated or never created.

For this article, I visited the South Bend, Indiana’s municipal website and was pleasantly surprised to see how much information is disseminated to the public. With a budget nearing $370 million for the current fiscal year and adequate staffing to maintain a website that is clear, concise and transparent, the expectations are high given the amount of information readily available. There is a specific page dedicated to the police testing that outlines the application requirements, testing criteria and salary for new officers in addition to other incentives offered by the City to encourage recruitment and retention. There is also an ability to apply through their web portal or through downloading an application which most municipalities seem to offer as opposed to a truly paperless process.

The outcry from the South Bend incident screamed for diversity. The issue at hand is not limited to South Bend, but to all municipalities throughout the nation. There seems to be a fundamental lack of sensitivity to these issues. How administrators overcome the roadblocks requires patience and compassion. Although we all strive to hire the most qualified person regardless of race, creed or gender, it is somewhat more challenging to ultimately find the right candidate when there are roadblocks in place that are unintentional. These roadblocks are placed for the protection of not only the municipality but also the individual being considered for the position. The roadblocks mentioned in this article should not be deterrents and ultimately used for the betterment of the department.

Author: Peter Melan is an at-large councilperson in the City of Easton, PA and the chair of public safety. He is in his first year of graduate studies in Public Administration at Ohio University. Peter is known for his creativity in solving problems using non-traditional methods, and for his experience in project management and data analytics.

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