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June 27, 2022

Quitting Time: How Local Governments Can Reverse the Clock on the Great Resignation

How local governments navigate through the current worker exodus will determine their ability to overcome future workforce challenges.
Posted by Carol Matthieu
Employee handing her manager an envelope with her resignation letter inside

Is it any wonder that 2021 has been coined the year of the “Great Resignation?” Workers left their jobs at historic rates, with a record 47.8 million Americans voluntarily quitting their jobs. November alone saw an unprecedented 4.5 million resignations. And ongoing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon.

Yet some evidence points to the Great Resignation as more of a job-switching revolution than a job-quitting phenomenon.

The pandemic prompted workers to reflect on what is most important in their lives. Many had the benefit of working from home. As remote work crystallized into a new normal, workers began to consider their long hours, distant commutes and expensive childcare, among others, as too costly for their quality of life. At the same time, large swaths of low-wage earners in the retail and service sectors lost their jobs seemingly overnight. This convergence gave an entire workforce a catalyst to seek better opportunities with higher pay and greater job satisfaction.

While this shift in workforce dynamics affects every industry, local governments in particular are facing unique challenges. Not only did they feel the squeeze from the Great Resignation, but they have also been experiencing a steady increase in quit rates over the last decade. If this trajectory continues, it has the potential to put the public sector at risk of a serious workforce shortage, perhaps with impacts on public services yet to be seen.

“Public service can be a job for some but for others, it is a calling,” explains Paul Lovelis, Administrative Manager at Pinal County, AZ. “Either way it is truly a sacrificial commitment to the greater good of our community. As leaders and managers of government, it is our responsibility to open the doors of opportunity for our employees to ensure that everyone is able to serve without barriers created by our publicly accountable and sometimes obstructively guarded policies.”

So, in this environment, how do governments turn the Great Resignation into a great renewal? Let’s take a look at some ways local governments can reframe these workforce challenges into lasting opportunities.

Engage Tenured Talent

Although the private sector experienced higher quit rates in 2021, only the government and leisure and hospitality sectors are now consistently seeing declines in their workforce. Also, nearly one-third of public sector employees are nearing retirement age as of 2021. Upon retirement, these tenured employees will take their skills and depth of knowledge with them.

To avoid a brain drain that could imperil service delivery, it’s critical for governments to leverage this wealth of talent now. Tenured talent can be incentivized with a phased retirement program to train and mentor recruits. This allows near-retiring employees to gradually reduce office hours as they focus on knowledge transfer. By fostering this relationship-focused transition planning, governments are prioritizing employee engagement and productivity.

Attract Fresh Talent

We’re seeing the highest rate of state and local government job openings in the past 20 years. This means the public sector is primed for a workforce refresh. However, constrained budgets and outdated technologies leave public agencies unable to compete against private sector businesses for fresh talent. To level the playing field, governments will need to update their approach to hiring.

A substantial portion of target recruits are likely to be members of the millennial and Gen Z generations. Survey after survey reveals that these tech-savvy workers want to stay engaged during the hiring process, expect top-tier digital experiences and look for opportunities that provide healthy work/life balance. To attract them, governments would be wise to upgrade their online presence and align their recruitment efforts with strategies that prioritize tech-forward communication and user-friendly hiring systems.

Upgrade the Experience

A 2022 survey of HR leaders reveals that employee experience is just as important as customer experience. And while many organizations are increasingly prioritizing the employee experience, governments are slower to respond.

Upgrading to newer technologies that facilitate effective hybrid and remote work can help governments bridge this divide. Modern, user-friendly technology not only addresses the paradigm shift to virtual work precipitated by the pandemic, but it also serves to enhance recruitment and onboarding processes as well. Additionally, current technology is a must-have for the new generation of tech-savvy employees whom governments will need to attract.

Reimagine the Workplace

According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of U.S. workers are working from home all or most of the time. Among this group, 78% say they’d like to continue doing so.

For government, the challenge is to find the balance between service delivery that requires in-person interaction and workplace flexibility that fosters employee engagement and productivity. As such, governments have an opportunity to identify positions appropriate for the hybrid or remote work model. In fact, half of state and local governments were already offering remote work for eligible positions at the height of the pandemic, with a similar share also offering flexible work schedules. By reframing the workplace as part of an entire benefits package, governments have the ability to enhance productivity, attract new talent and reimagine a new model of work.

Prompted by the Great Resignation, governments have a unique opportunity to reframe their thinking on many aspects of work as they look toward a future where workforce dynamics are likely to remain fluid.

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