Industry Insights: The Public-Sector Workforce Crisis — The Challenge and the Solution

“Everyone’s in pain.”

That is how one local government leader recently described the public-sector workforce crisis, as government organizations continue to struggle to attract and retain talent.

U.S. data corroborate his comment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 567,000 state and local government vacancies in August 2023, but only 163,000 hires. While the private sector has recovered the jobs lost during the pandemic, one estimate is that government has lost more than 600,000 jobs. As a Washington Post op-ed headline put it, “A slow-moving crisis is paralyzing states and cities.” 

Some would argue it’s not-so slow moving.

In a national survey of state and local government employees, 77% reported that the massive number of vacancies in their agencies has strained their workloads, with 34% characterizing the strain as “significant.” No wonder 59% said they are considering leaving their jobs.

The government-workforce crisis has profound impacts for the American public. Governments are struggling to respond to crises and natural disasters, 911 call centers lack staff, a national shortage of bus and rail operators and mechanics has forced transit agencies to reduce service, a wave of departing public-health employees has put Americans at risk, staffing shortages in departments of corrections “threaten officers, inmates, and the public’s safety,” and police recruiting and staffing are in a “prolonged crisis that is real, persistent, and worsening.”

Government almost always succeeds but, when it fails, people can die. That’s not hyperbole. Think of the response to Hurricane Katrina, described as “government mismanagement” and “a complete breakdown in coordination” across all levels of government.

The Solution: Become a Great Place to Work

There isn’t an easy answer that will enable government to compete for talent in a tough labor market, but the long-term solution is for public-sector organizations to become great places to work. The Great Place To Work® Institute, now part of UKG, certifies organizations around the world, including in government, as great places to work based on the its renowned Trust Index™ employee survey.

Thirty years of Great Place To Work research on 100 million employee surveys has revealed that organizations certified as great places to work have 50% less turnover than other organizations. Moreover, because what occurs inside an organization affects how people outside view it, great cultures also attract great talent.

Great places to work have employee-focused cultures that create positive employee experiences. These healthy cultures attract and retain talented employees who therefore deliver for the organization and the public it serves.

The employee experience consists of the “moments that matter” shown below that influence how the employee views the organization — and whether the employee will stay and perform at a high level. As the image shows, these interactions cover the full range of the employee lifecycle, even before the new employee is hired. These moments occur daily, weekly, monthly, annually, or just at the beginning or the end of the employee’s tenure.

Organizations that deliver a positive employee experience are five times more likely to be great places to work and five times more likely to engage and retain employees. How does an organization, including in government, know if it is delivering a positive employee experience? By collecting and analyzing data.

Guessing about how to attract and retain talent isn’t good enough. The most valid and comprehensive way to understand how employees feel about their experience is to simply ask them. Great Place To Work’s Trust Index survey identifies what employees feel positive about, and what the organization should therefore double down on. The survey also identifies what aspects of the culture employees believe the organization should improve to be, and remain, a great place to work.

As I travel around the country to speak and learn about the public sector’s talent challenges and solutions, I continue to hear that the biggest challenges facing government are attracting, developing, engaging, and retaining talent. Public-sector organizations must meet this challenge by becoming great places to work. The stakes for our nation are too high for government to fail in this area.