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Government’s Workforce Problems Make HR Increasingly Important

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

By Howard Risher
January 4, 3018

Public employers are entering an era when workforce shortages will make it increasingly difficult to deliver basic services. For job families where government competes with industry—engineering and information management stand out—this is not new but it will get worse. In healthcare, employers, both public and private, are already affected by shortages especially in nursing. The newest shortages are in occupations where government is the dominant employer – police, teachers, emergency responders and prison officers have made headlines.

The shortages are attributable to the tsunami of retirements combined with the demographics, and the career interests of the generation now entering the workforce. In too many jurisdictions government’s “brand” as an employer adds to the problem. This is a global problem for public employers and the numbers preclude easy answers.  

The federal shutdown and pay freeze do not help.

The situation is exacerbated by the importance of employees in delivering government services. For the foreseeable future, technology is not going to replace many government workers.

In other sectors HR offices are expected to take the lead when workforce concerns arise. The expanding role of HR executives has been discussed frequently in business publications like Harvard Business Review. As far back as 1998 an article in HBR declared, “A New Mandate for Human Resources.” Its increasingly common to find corporate HR executives earning more than $1 million. They increasingly are the “trusted advisor in all things-people related” (from an HBR article).

To support corporate HR executives, a large academic community is available to study and help address people management problems. The HR division in the Academy of Management has over 3,000 members.

Perhaps more important several of the more prominent business schools have created research centers focused on HR and organizational issues. One of the earliest was Wharton’s Industrial Research Unit which dates to 1921. It evolved to become the Center for Human Resources, which is described today as “a hub for academics and practitioners interested in… the most current thinking on talent management, workforce training and education, diversity and more through our faculty research and our networking opportunities with fellow HR executives from around the world.”

I can confirm the description. For almost a decade I worked with the Center’s Director Peter Cappelli to plan and manage conferences on leading edge HR topics. The Center also has member-only meetings attended by HR executives from leading companies.

Several other universities have similar centers. The Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California has an Advisory Board of HR executives and a team of prominent researchers who focus on HR and organizational issues. Similarly, Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations has two research centers, the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies and the Institute for Compensation Studies.

There are also several professional associations that support the HR community. Wikipedia lists 20 HR-related associations based in the US.

From a different perspective, the past decade has seen the mushrooming of initiatives to identify “the best places to work.” Today publications for virtually every industry and metropolitan area have an issue in which the best employers are listed. The focus is not strictly human resources, but it has obvious implications for HR policies and practices. It’s contributed to the increased importance of HR. The point is that in the private sector the HR community can turn to multiple resources focused on improving workforce management.

Nothing like that exists to support government HR functions. There is the International Public Management Association for Human Resources along with the Center for State & Local Government Excellence. Both focus on HR and workforce issues but neither is looked to for best practice leadership. (I have a quarterly column in the IPMA HR News.)

Significantly the National Governors Association has a Center for Best Practices but nothing on the NGA website suggests workforce management is seen as a priority.

More importantly, only two of the top 25 highly ranked schools of public administration offer degree programs in HR management. The highest is American University (sixth on the US News list).

The typical graduate program has at most two or three courses related to workforce management. Harvard’s Kennedy School has a long list of courses related to human rights but only one clearly focused on the management of government employees. The Maxwell School has a single course on HR management and another on labor relations.

This is not meant to be critical. The origins of academic programs and research centers go back years. It’s clear, however, workforce management has not been on the radar of the organizations supporting government or the academic community.

Government is at a crossroad; something needs to change. All the evidence confirms the staffing problems will progressively get worse. There are to be sure common barriers – archaic civil service laws, unions, tight budgets of course, and a “culture of compliance” that obsesses over rules and procedures. (That phrase was the focus of a recent National Academy of Public Administration report, No Time to Wait.”)

There are a few bright spots. Tennessee has transformed the state’s employment practices to make it an employer of choice. The state’s HR Commissioner, Rebecca Hunter, serves on the Governor’s Cabinet. The department’s annual report highlights what they have accomplished. The list of awards in growing.

A suggested starting point is documenting anticipated talent shortages, their impact, and the potential for gains if addressed. Another early step, from the Tennessee strategy, might be a ‘listening tour’ to learn from managers and employees what needs to change. In Tennessee, the Deputy Governor joined with Commissioner Hunter in those discussions.

The Executive Summary of the NAPA report highlights what is likely to unfold if the problem is not addressed,

“. . . unless the federal government [or any public employer] launches an aggressive effort now to rebuild its workforce, it will fall farther behind in its ability to serve the public. Government would risk losing its ability to govern.”

The academic community could play a valuable, supportive role.


Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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