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No Clean Water, Unplowed Streets: What the Public Sector’s Hiring Problem Means For All of Us

In February, roughly one million residents of Austin, Texas, were told to boil their tap water before drinking it, because for three days, people in one of America’s fastest-growing cities did not have access to clean drinking water. One of the main reasons the city utility initially missed the poor water quality? Twenty employees quit in January, the highest number in at least five years.

“We are very challenged right now with our workforce in that we have numerous vacancies,” said Stephanie Sue, Austin’s Water Operations Manager, at a March hearing. “We are asking our staff to do some really important things. They’re working harder than ever and not getting paid as much as their peers are.”

Many employers across the U.S. are saying they can’t find the workers they need, but the public sector is facing some of the biggest hiring problems. Public sector workers skew older—just 8.1% of the federal workforce is younger than 30, compared to 23 percent of the private sector—and older workers retired en masse during the pandemic. More than half of state and local workers said they were considering leaving their positions voluntarily to retire, change jobs, or leave the workforce entirely, according to a December 2021 survey by MissionSquare Research Institute. Some of the top reasons: they want a higher salary and they feel burned out from the pandemic. Many said that they were shouldering a larger workload since many of their colleagues had left. Because government salaries often can’t match those in the private sector, recruiting new employees is a difficult process. While private-sector employment has surpassed March 2019 levels, there were about 400,000 fewer government employees in March of 2022 than there were in March of 2019. And as the problems in Austin show, vacancies in government jobs can lead to bigger issues than just a company selling fewer hamburgers.

The public sector crisis is reverberating across the country. In Brunswick, Maine, an ice rink didn’t open this winter because of a shortage of workers in the parks and recreation department. Philadelphia imposed mandatory overtime and six-day work weeks on its sanitation workers because of staffing issues. A charter school in Delaware offered to pay parents $700 to drive their kids to school because of problems hiring school bus drivers.

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There are the little things that erode when the government is short-staffed: zoning permits take longer to process, and the wait to get a new driver’s license may be even longer than usual. But long-term hiring problems in government could lead to bigger economic issues in the U.S. economy. Public sector employees maintain the roads that workers drive on every day and operate the buses and trains that move them around. On the local level, they educate children, put out fires, and keep drinking water safe. On the federal level, they guide airplanes and create weather forecasts and process taxes. In short, without enough government employees, a lot of things stop working smoothly.

“The bottom line is that the people rely on government services, often without realizing it, and the core of the government services on which they rely is the people,” says Don Kettl, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland who studies the public sector. “A neglect of those issues is something that will have an enormous impact on every single citizen in the country.”

School buses are parked at the Arlington County Bus Depot
School buses are parked at the Arlington County Bus Depot, on January 26, 2022, in Arlington, Virginia.Olivier Douliery—AFP/Getty Images

A mass exodus from the public sector

For decades, demographers have been warning of a “silver tsunami” or “gray wave” in which Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, would retire. But that tsunami didn’t really happen until the pandemic, says Kettl. Boomers saw their home values and stock market portfolios soar and decided to retire rather than risk contracting COVID-19. In 2019, 1.5 million Baby Boomers retired. In 2020, more than twice as many did. Many of the people who retired were long-time public sector employees who had institutional knowledge and expertise that is hard to replace—especially with public-sector salaries. Some had been working past retirement age, but the vitriol that arose during the pandemic towards government workers because of mask mandates and general frustrations also made many Boomers decide it was time to call it quits.

“I have a number of quite senior individuals working for me directly as department heads, they’re all in their mid 50s to early 60s,” says Julia Griffin, the town manager of Hanover, New Hampshire, who is retiring in June. “And I think all of us are feeling that weariness that’s just come from trying to manage in a very dynamic environment with a lot of uncertainty.”

In New Hampshire, there were 7.6% fewer government jobs in July 2021 than in July 2019, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The town of Hanover has about 24 vacancies in a staff of 158, including half of the police department. It can’t find snow plow drivers or employees for its library, water department, or zoning department. Griffin, who has worked in the public sector for 40 years, thinks that the retirement and health care benefits that once lured people like her into the public sector may not be as important for younger workers, since they don’t plan to be at one employer for their whole careers. And many of Hanover’s jobs require workers to go into an office or physical location, which also isn’t as appealing to younger workers, she says. Decades ago, positions like Senior Planner in the zoning department would have 20 or 30 applicants, she says. Today, Hanover is lucky if it gets two.

“We can’t find the bodies,” she says. “It’s not that we have a small applicant pool, we have no applicants.”

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The town has so many vacancies in its after school program—five—that Griffin has asked parks and recreation staffers to work at the after school program from 3 p.m. onwards to fill the gaps. A retirement in the town’s water division has meant that there’s only one employee maintaining the water distribution system instead of two. With so much trouble finding police officers, Hanover is thinking of discontinuing some longtime police services, like performing checks on people’s homes when they’re on vacation or helping people who have gotten locked out of their cars. Griffin started researching autonomous snow plows because it’s been so hard to find drivers. The town may wait to plow until there is three inches of snow on the ground, rather than one—something that could cause more car accidents and irk residents, even if they don’t want to pay more in taxes to raise driver pay.

These retirements have created a vicious cycle where overworked government workers can’t do their jobs as thoroughly because they’re short-staffed, which frustrates residents. That frustration makes more public sector employees want to leave.

“The more short-staffed you get, the more people resign,” says Heather Bollinger, a nurse at San Francisco General, the city’s public hospital. For nurses, short-staffing can be dangerous, she says—for example, a patient who was intubated came out of sedation unexpectedly and tried to pull out his breathing tube, but there was only one nurse available at the time. She had to lie on top of the patient to restrain him.

Overworked government employees are starting to express their frustration across the country. In San Francisco, city and county workers marched down Market Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, in late March to protest the 3,800 openings across the city and calling on the city to fill San Francisco’s staffing gaps.

“There’s a direct correlation between our quality of life in this city and the lack of staff in our departments,” says Kim Tavaglione, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, which coordinates 150 local unions. “Just look at all the complaints people make about the state of the streets, about trash, about potholes.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s office said, in a statement, that the city has lost workers since the pandemic began, and that it’s hard trouble keeping pace with hiring. The city is attempting to reform its hiring practices to allow the city to hire nurses and behavioral health workers in weeks instead of the 6 to 9 months it used to take, the mayor’s office said.

How cities are hiring

Recruiting younger workers is a tough sell in a tight economy where private sector employers are able to pay a lot more for less responsibility. Governments already have ceilings on what they can pay workers because of a complicated system that sets pay dependent on experience and certifications. Often, giving government workers raises means increasing taxes, which is never popular with the public.

Government jobs also have an image problem. While Big Tech companies offer perks like unlimited vacation time, and retail offers to pay for college educations, government is still seen as a creaky bureaucracy where everything takes a long time and not much is accomplished. Kettl, the Maryland professor, says that his students worry that if they join a large government organization, they’ll just become a “cog in the wheel” and not be able to do anything meaningful.

“When I think about my network, there’s not a lot of people who say, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to graduate and go work in a local government or in the public sector,’” says Gianluca Cairo, a vice president of public sector, revenue enablement and strategy at Ceridian who spent much of his career in the public sector in Canada and who now consults local governments on how to retain and recruit more workers. There’s a big gap between what young workers want, and what they think they’ll get in the public sector, which becomes a problem when other industries are giving them what they want, he says.

Some cities are making moves to modernize. The Washington, D.C., city government has started conducting much of its hiring process electronically. Columbus, Ohio, modernized its payroll process so that fewer staff were needed to do the same work, Cairo says. But changes in the public sector can take time.

Genaro Baez, who heads human resources for Milwaukee County, has been trying to run the county more like the private sector companies he’s worked for in the past. Milwaukee runs a zoo, a parks system, law enforcement, and transit, among other agencies, but is competing against malls that offer workers $17 an hour, he says. He’s been able to change the hiring process somewhat, scrapping requirements for 4 year degrees for jobs that don’t necessarily need them, and using a new platform to track applicants and process them more quickly. He’s been thinking a lot about retention, and is training managers to make the government more appealing to all workers, as well as allowing some jobs to be remote. And he sidestepped an archaic rule that the county can’t interview candidates for a position until the ad is taken down by making some positions evergreen.

In local government HR, Baez is not up against company policy—he’s up against laws. He wants to raise pay for positions with high turnover and a lot of vacancies, like officers at correctional facilities, but those pay rates are written into civil service statutes. Changing them requires a bill to make it through committee and then get ratified by the full board of supervisors. He’s been trying to make some of those changes for years.

Some governments are trying to become more flexible, allowing workers to be remote if possible, and introducing more technology so that they need fewer workers. Gartner predicts that governments will spend half a trillion dollars this year in technology to improve the “resilience” of public service. Automation has helped the U.S. Postal Service sort mail, something employees used to spend hours doing—but that also means carriers spend more time on their feet delivering mail.

And technology can’t replace many of the jobs that are empty right now in local government. “The business of operating a water treatment plant is not something we can fully automate,” Sue, of Austin Water said, at the March hearing. “It’s something we have to rely heavily on our people and invest in our people.” Austin is currently working on a program to help veterans enter the public sector, the city says, and is trying use stipends and other tools to retain its workforce.

Despite all the vacancies, convincing Austin—or any other city—to invest in its people is an uphill battle. In March, Austin Water proposed two options after the boil water advisory, which was the third in four years. The first was to give Austin residents a “goodwill” one-time credit because of the inconvenience caused by having to boil their water for three days. Residential households would get $10, commercial customers would get $50. The total cost would be $3.9 million. The second option was to spend that money to add 12 full-time “core staffing” positions, as well as four support staff and software to modernize its standard operating procedures. That would have cost $3.3 million.

The City Council will decide on the two options later this month. In a memo, the director of Austin Water recommended that the city implement the enhanced staffing to “reduce the risk of future operational upsets.” He won’t have very long to argue his case. He, too, has resigned.

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