As local governments emerge from an era of tight budgets and staff cuts, they are greeted with a new problem — an increasing churn in employees.
The turnover rate at several metro counties has doubled in the past five years, and governments are competing both with each other and the private sector for new hires. The worker shortage is leading to project delays and more taxpayer money spent on recruitment, training and expensive contractors, government officials said.
“For a while we were in survival mode, just trying to deal with the bare-bones operations during the aftermath of the economic downturn. But now I think people are looking around saying, ‘Gee, how do we get the work done?’ ” said Elizabeth Kellar, CEO of the national Center for State and Local Government Excellence.
The trend is only going to continue as more baby boomers retire. Minnesota is projected to have 90,000 more jobs than workers by 2022, and governments are struggling to find ways to retain people — especially ever-moving millennials — to keep up with the demand for government services.
Cities and counties need to get creative to keep staffing levels up, Kellar said. Some communities are trying new promotional campaigns to attract workers, while others are partnering with community colleges or focusing on grooming staff to move up within the organization.
Struggling to fill jobs
For the average Minnesotan, employee turnover in local and state government is a hidden issue. But when staff — like bridge inspection engineers or school nurses — are stretched thin, there can be major ramifications for the general public, officials said.
“We have a very thin safety net in many respects,” Kellar said. “We just keep our fingers crossed sometimes and hope that the dedicated people that are out there can make everything work for us as a society.”
The gaps in employment do have one upside: Governments don’t have to pay as many people, said Matt Smith, deputy county manager in Dakota County, which had a turnover rate of more than 10 percent last year, up from less than 5 percent in 2010.
“The downside is, of course, we find some work doesn’t get done or we have to lean more on outside contractors,” Smith said, and those contractors tend to be much more expensive than staff.
The cost of hiring a new staff member can be prohibitive, too, as workers come to expect salaries higher than what cities and counties are used to paying. More people are getting out of government work altogether, opting for higher salaries paid for similar work in the private sector.
“From my experience, when somebody got a government job, they usually stayed there until they retired,” said Joe Fischbach, Cottage Grove’s human resources manager. “In the last few years, that hasn’t been as much the case.”
Matt Saam has had several jobs in different cities. The former West St. Paul public works director recently moved to the same position in Apple Valley.
He was ready for a city with a “larger staff, larger budget, more responsibility, more challenges” — and higher pay. He has seen the number of job opportunities pick up in the past few years, Saam said.
“When one position opens up, it’s like a domino effect,” said Jerilyn Erickson, who recently moved from Prior Lake’s finance director to Lakeville’s. “You’ll see people moving from city to city; that opens up an opportunity somewhere else. And it may be somebody entirely new to government, or it might be just somebody moving on up.”
As Scott County begins to hire millennials to replace retiring baby boomers, it’s tougher to find people to work the overtime hours the county relies on, County Administrator Gary Shelton said. Younger employees are also more likely to leave a job after just a few years, officials said.
“It’s a huge shift in generational values,” said Lori Huss, Scott County’s employee relations director. “Work has a place in their life, and that’s it. It’s not their entire life.”
To appeal to that new mind-set, government officials are coming up with fresh ways to entice young people.
Carver County is thinking about how millennials want to work as it studies its office space, employee relations director Kerie Anderka said. It is creating more open workspace and informal multipurpose areas, and increasing options for people who want to spend part of the week telecommuting, she said.
Hennepin County has started working with Minneapolis Community and Technical College to train people for government jobs, like human services representatives. They are developing new curricula for other jobs with high turnover, like one for 911 dispatchers, workforce development director John Thorson said.
Dakota County is trying a different tack: appealing to millennials’ desire for fulfilling jobs. The county created slogans like, “Be the one to protect our tiniest tots. Be a public nurse. Be more,” and “Be a protector of paradise. Be a park keeper. Be more,” and plastered them on newsletters, signs at county buildings and job fair banners.
Gail Plewacki, the communications director, spearheaded that campaign. She has since left for another job.