Jennifer Orme applied to be the human resources director for the city of Holland after hearing about the job on Facebook.
The city’s next request took her by surprise: They asked her to send in a hard copy of her resume.
In the nearly three years since she took the job, Orme moved the entire application process online in an effort to streamline getting more applicants for city positions.
Government HR professionals need to emphasize getting applicants, retaining them and making sure employees pass on institutional knowledge as they prepare for a wave of Baby Boomer retirements in the next few years. As the number of retirees grows, local governments have had to place a high priority on succession planning.
“(Retirements) are driving our hiring decisions more than ever,” Orme said.
The city of Holland employs 176 benefitted full-time workers. Within the next five years, 57 people are eligible for retirement, including top public safety and transportation officials.
According to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, succession planning continues to be identified as a top workforce issue, yet many organizations have not developed formal succession plans. With 52.1 percent of local government employees in the U.S. between the ages of 45-64, the center says government leaders need to shift their focus to planning for the future.
In light of the ongoing talent shortage, local governments also should simultaneously track who is eligible for retirement and ramp up recruitment efforts to find the next generation of public sector workers, sources said.
One aspect of succession planning is preparing for the loss of institutional knowledge that occurs when a longtime employee retires.
Heidi Voorhees, president of GovHR, an Illinois-based executive recruitment firm, said she works with many communities that have 60-70 percent of their public works employees retiring in the next five years. These employees often have very specific knowledge needed to run basic functions of a community.
“These are people that plow the snow, that fix the water main breaks,” Voorhees said. “These people are the core functions of a city, not to mention the institutional knowledge that these employees have. Passing on that knowledge and training to successors is important.”
Municipalities can start by looking at their workforces and identifying workers coming up behind people who will soon be eligible to retire. While shortages exist across the board, communities face key challenges with employees in public safety and utility departments.
“These are careers that require certification, training, professional development; it’s not something everyone can do,” Voorhees said. “There has to be an investment made.”
In the city of Grand Rapids, some utility and skilled trades jobs are designated “learn and earn” positions, providing a pipeline to employment with the city, said Desiree Foster, Grand Rapids’ human resources director. In that system, workers get paid while they are being trained.
As well, the city remains in the final stages of creating an apprenticeship program for electricians so it can train its own staff and workers can achieve journeyman licenses.
In general, Foster said Grand Rapids has a “robust” employee development program, including tuition reimbursement for workers who want additional training or professional development.
The city underwent succession planning workshops during which it brought in key members from departments and discussed how to build a master list of positions and plan for how they would replace institutional knowledge.
In a larger city like Grand Rapids, which has about 1,500 employees, department heads often have deputies, so one person does not have the sole knowledge needed for a given position, Foster said.
For smaller cities like Holland, some departments such as transportation are getting employees to spend as much time as possible with in-house “experts” in those sectors.
“We’re trying to get as much of that transfer of knowledge figured out so we can determine where some of the gaps are going to be,” Orme said.
This year, Orme has budgeted more to crosstrain employees, as the city has people in leadership roles who could retire in the next five to 10 years. Holland has sponsored employees interested in climbing the ranks to participate in the West Coast Leadership Program through the West Coast Chamber of Commerce. The city also offers tuition reimbursement for employees.
In the public sector, it’s important to focus on developing and retaining existing employees, especially because jobs in the private sector often pay more, GovHR’s Voorhees said. This also makes communicating the intrinsic rewards to potential employees crucial, she added.
Recruiting the next generation
Orme’s efforts to modernize Holland’s recruitment process have included a shift in how it publicizes open positions, which are marketed on various social media platforms, including Indeed, Facebook and LinkedIn. The city’s applications also go through an online tracking system.
The net result: If Orme were applying for her job today, she might hear about it on a social media platform and be able to apply for it entirely online.
As part of the recruitment effort, Holland is leveraging its heavy social media presence to showcase the city as a good place to live and work.
“We are able to see how they heard about the position — it’s usually Indeed,” Orme said. “We’ll continue to do recruitment efforts through social media. I always have a lot of people reaching out to me about positions on LinkedIn.”
In Grand Rapids, the city has committed to doing more social media recruitment, especially to reach the Millennial generation and younger.
“You can apply for a job on your cell phone, but actually just using social media as our recruitment tool, that’s not a strategy we’ve done a lot with,” Foster said.
The city has held recruitment fairs that allow students to see opportunities in local government, depending on their career paths.
While they’ve used different tactics, the recruitment efforts in Holland and Grand Rapids seem to be working: Both cities have vacancy rates of less than 10 percent for positions.
Overall, Voorhees said professional resources are available to help local governments big and small work toward the future. It’s critical that communities track data and see where they have exposure, as the inability to fill open positions poses a risk and an added expense if they need to bring in a private sector firm to fill key roles.
“We see organizations that have to fill talent gaps. It’s a real risk if you can’t find people who can run your water plant,” she said. “I would argue that if (communities) can afford to bring in an expert (to conduct succession planning), it’s time and money well spent.”
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