Public sector exodus: Behind America’s government workforce crisis
What is to be done about the ongoing exodus of workers from public sector positions in the U.S.? How can government offices work to hire, recruit, and retain the talent needed to provide effective public services? We explore this and more in Ascend's first-ever look at workforce planning.

Thentia is a highly configurable, end-to-end regulatory and licensing solution designed exclusively for regulators, by regulators.


Thentia is a highly configurable, end-to-end regulatory and licensing solution designed exclusively for regulators, by regulators.



Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on facebook

A workforce crisis has beset state and local governments throughout the U.S. for quite some time – and it’s only gotten worse in the wake of COVID-19. Between stress, burnout, retirement, and a difficult transition to remote-work arrangements, employees have been leaving government offices in droves. From December 2021 to February 2022, the job opening rate in state and local government agencies hit its highest mark in over 20 years.

In this period, the highest numbers of new vacancies were usually found in public-facing occupations. Hard-to-fill positions have also taken a hit, such as those of computer technicians and data scientists, in part because of the high education requirements associated with these jobs and their relatively meager compensation compared to private sector roles of the same type. And when the public sector workforce struggles, so does the public.

Take, for example, the years-long clean-water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, during which residents have gone for stretches of weeks without access to potable water. Though many factors have contributed to the crisis – not the least of which involve conflicts between a conservative state government and the liberal-majority populace of Jackson – the inability of the city to hire enough Class A water operators to run water treatment plants has played a critical role in its failure to provide drinkable water to its people.

An inability to hire and retain talent has left state and local governments unable to meet certain needs of the citizens they serve as the U.S. continues to recover from the pandemic. Workers are leaving, and others are not coming in to take their place. And with state and local governments playing such a large role in the employment of women and workers of color, the crisis can have a disproportionate impact on these segments of the population.

What are the roadblocks to progress?

At least one obstacle to the development of the public sector workforce is unavoidable – the ongoing mass retirement of aging workers hired decades ago. The baby boomer retirement crisis has posed issues in both the private and public sectors, but the public sector faces a unique struggle filling the void retirees are leaving behind.

According to Mark F. Weinberg, president of the Careers in Government (CiG) planning board, “local and state government will have to increase their recruitment efforts to fill vacated procurement positions for the balance of this decade.” Weinberg said competition for new talent will only grow stronger as time goes on, and recruitment efforts will require a more technology-based approach aimed at younger recruits.

Lengthy hiring processes, inflexible work arrangements, and noncompetitive salaries can create additional obstacles for state and local governments looking to hire and develop talent. A lack of community outreach can also hinder these agencies. One vicious cycle plaguing the workforce crisis stems from the fact that many state and local employers are inadequately equipped to hire the HR staff necessary to evaluate and fine-tune their hiring processes.

Addressing the workforce crisis

So, what is to be done about the public sector workforce issue? At the very least, most research points toward better funding for take-home pay as the most surefire solution. When we think about take-home pay, we usually think about salary, but hazard pay as well as recruitment and retention bonuses can also go a long way in making sure workers are incentivized to come aboard and stay aboard.

It can therefore be argued that any push to boost numbers in government offices must necessarily have a political component. Without proper financial support from state and local governments, public sector organizations cannot offer the attractive take-home pay rates or launch the community engagement initiatives that will keep recruits from simply taking better offers in the private sector.

Reviewing education and experience requirements can also help state and local agencies address their workforce needs. For example, by replacing hard-and-fast degree requirements with apprenticeships and internships, government offices can pique the interest of potential employees and develop their talent in hands-on positions. Considering the U.S.’s education gap between white and nonwhite citizens, this could also help to address discrepancies in hiring workers from marginalized groups.

Increased community outreach and collaboration with educational institutions offer another avenue toward workforce growth. By partnering with community-based workforce development programs, HR departments in government offices can make the availability of public sector jobs better known and create viable networks for attracting and retaining talent that would otherwise go to the private sector. But how does this look in practice?

Case study: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

A worthy example of community outreach done right can be found in the efforts of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Engineering Services Group. In 2018, Engineering Services developed a workforce planning program intended to boost outreach and improve worker retention across the board. The group adopted an intern program and increased its collaboration with universities in the region to develop more diverse talent pools for entry-level positions.

The group also retooled its recruitment strategy. In the past, Engineering Services had targeted technically proficient hires who would quickly ascend the office ranks to assume high-level technical or management positions. But in its new approach, the agency looked for other skills in potential recruits, including communication skills, leadership attributes, and the ability to adapt, in an effort to attract more well-rounded applicants.

Engineering Services also benefitted from a streamlined, standardized onboarding process, in which the office’s guiding principles were reinforced not only in training modules but also in team meetings, one-on-one conversations, and performance evaluations. Literature on the office’s mission statement and guiding principles was made widely accessible, which helped instill a strong culture throughout the organization’s workforce.

The agency also benefited from formalized rotations to engage workers with department functions outside the scope of their positions, mentoring programs to rejuvenate mid-career staff and increase enthusiasm for taking on new roles within the organization, and management training to generate interest in higher-level positions. These strategies all helped strengthen the workforce within Engineering Services, from entry-level positions all the way to upper management.

The hope for recovery

Initiatives like those in Southern California are taking place across the country. For example, Next Gen Silicon Valley, a commission of local government agencies that creates annual programs to raise awareness of public sector positions and opportunities for advancement within them, offers internship and fellowship programs as part of its overall community outreach initiative.

This is all to say that though the public sector workforce struggles, there is still hope for recovery. If legislators act to provide better funding for government agencies, and if these agencies launch strong recruitment initiatives to reach out to communities and provide employee benefits that prevent migration to the private sector, meaningful progress can be made toward rebuilding the government workforce in the coming years.

In future articles, we will discuss workforce planning with a wider scope, looking at the labor shortage as it applies to regulated professions, such as those in health care (doctors, nurses, etc.), and the role of regulation in the planning and management of these workforces. We will also take a closer look at the IT and cybersecurity workforce, exploring the unique challenges the public sector faces in such a critical and ever-changing field.


Regulator of tomorrow

Building my regulator of tomorrow with LEGO® bricks

What should the regulator of tomorrow look like? While there may be no definitive vision, contributor Rick Borges gets creative with answering this important question, drawing inspiration from a favorite toy to ‘build’ a model of an effective future regulator.

Read More »

Do chatbots understand you? Exploring bias and discrimination in AI

To what extent does AI have the potential to exhibit bias and discrimination? And how might humans implement the technology in a way that curbs these tendencies? In his latest piece for Ascend, Rick Borges discusses the ethical implications of widespread AI implementation and explores what could be done to address them.

Read More »
Harry Cayton AI regulation

AI requires people-centric regulation to succeed: Cayton

Artificial Intelligence has much to offer for good as well as for harm, and the need to regulate emerging AI technologies in some way has become apparent. In this article, Harry Cayton argues that instead of trying to regulate an entire international industry, AI regulation requires a precise approach that focuses on the people who create it and use it.

Read More »

Stay informed.

Get the latest news and views on regulation and digital government.


Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on facebook
Jordan Milian
Written byJordan Milian
Jordan Milian is a writer covering government regulation and occupational licensing for Ascend, with a professional background in journalism and marketing.


Alberta physicians criticize plans to subsidize nurse practitioner clinics: Weekly regulatory news

The Week in Brief is your weekly snapshot of regulatory news and what's happening in the world of professional licensing, government technology, and public policy.
This week in regulatory news, professional communities clash over plans to publicly fund nurse practitioner clinics in Alberta, California considers an alternative pathway to licensure for lawyers, and much more.