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Talent Shortages Require New Answers

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

By Howard Risher
April 16, 2019

This is not new news. Labor markets are unusually tight and demographic trends make it a long term problem. Shortages have emerged in a number of industries and for a growing list of occupations. In the public sector, the situation is exacerbated by heavy retirements, pay freezes and budget problems—the reasons are many. The problem was discussed in a Governing.com column, “Openings for State Jobs Are Up, So Why Are Applications Down?”

The column reported on a survey conducted by the National Association of State Chief Administrators, Job One: Reimagine Today’s State Government Workforce. The key is the opening statement,

“State governments have always had to compete for talent. Now the challenges are reaching a fever pitch thanks to demographic and social forces. While state leaders recognize the obstacles, most aren’t yet doing enough to overcome them.”

Other studies have confirmed that many local government employers share the problems.

Shortages have been reported in core government services: law enforcement, health, education and prisons, as well as in occupations where government competes directly for talent with industry. Skill shortages are the number oneproblem for the business community. For government, if the problem is not addressed, vacancies will increase and performance will deteriorate. That’s certain.

For public employers working to solve the vacancy problem, pay inflation may be the highest barrier. Federal data shows wage and salary increases for private sector workers were 3.1 percent in 2018. In government the increase was 2.4 percent. Since the 2009 recession, government salaries have become less and less competitive.

In other sectors employers can readily adopt new talent management strategies to remake their brand to be more competitive. Key is the flexibility to respond quickly to labor market developments. Businesses know they have to respond before vacancies affect their business.

Public employers, however, are unable to respond quickly or fully. Civil service laws and regulations are the primary constraint, but history, risk-averse cultures and the conflicting interests of stakeholders make change difficult. Unfortunately, few government leaders or employees have had the experience or training to tackle change-management projects.

Since the 1990 recession there has been a revolution in the way work and workers are managed. Perhaps the most important change is philosophical, from managing employees as a cost to investing in productive assets. Experience in companies dominated by knowledge jobs—and this is true of most government agencies—confirms workers contribute far more when they are trusted and empowered to tackle operational problems. The lessons learned are invaluable for rethinking people-management practices.

Successful reform initiatives go back decades. Tennessee’s story has been the focus of several recent posts. However, there are far too many public employers still constrained by decades old civil service legislation. Those laws are at odds with what we have learned about effective workforce management.

The problems are complex and serious; reform is needed. A piecemeal approach focused on specific Human Resource policies (e.g., changing the way job vacancies are posted) can generate gains but tweaking current practices is not going to solve vacancy problems. That’s not going to make government a more attractive career choice.

Change management experience highlights the importance of building support with elected leaders as an early goal. Few have experience managing large employee groups so they will need to be briefed on the problems and how this will affect government results. Broad reform will need champions.

A suggested starting point is documenting the extent of the problems. Study teams could, for example, document where vacancies currently exist and where projected retirements and turnover will add to the problem. They could also learn what causes new hires to resign in the first year or two. Agreeing on the facts is the first step to agreeing on possible solutions. Here smaller jurisdictions could use help.

The studies are also central to understanding how existing laws will limit reform. Asked privately, even union leaders are likely to acknowledge civil service laws are part of the problem. In 1990 when I managed the federal study that supported passage of the Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act, endless group and private meetings were held to inform stakeholders and build congressional support.

Reform is possible and needed. The Tennessee story confirms that. Everyone is likely to be anxious; there will be naysayers and skeptics. Employees need to know why it’s necessary and what they can expect. They need to be kept abreast of progress and unexpected developments.

Unfortunately, the success stories like Tennessee have rarely been well documented. The NASCA survey pinpointed problems. Now it should be followed by a similar survey highlighting change initiatives that improve agency performance. In other sectors the, “Best Places to Work,” websites promote the value of proven practices; nothing like that exists for government. Leaders need to know the challenges are solvable.

Managers and workers in units with vacancies probably focus more on the problem than anyone. It affects them every day. They understand what needs to change better than anyone. Empowering and trusting teams to tackle problems has no cost. Quick wins will build support for change.

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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