New AFT task force tackles public sector staff shortages

Highlighting the mission-driven work at the heart of public service, a new task force created by AFT Public Employees convened Jan. 27-28 in Albuquerque, N.M., to help local unions understand and address the causes of staffing shortages across the public sector.

Marine biologist
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Greeted by task force co-chairs Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees and an AFT vice president, and Gary Feist, president of the North Dakota Public Employees Association, the 10-person task force described barriers to recruitment and retention in their own states and explored ways to fix shortages in public employment. The task force will follow up on initial work done from 2000 through 2002.

First, they were briefed by MissionSquare Research Institute, formerly the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, on the staff shortages around the country and what some government entities are providing to improve recruitment and retention in the public sector. These include the importance of retirement plans, health and wellness benefits, and labor force development.

The current situation isn’t pretty. Across the 3,000-plus job titles in the AFT Public Employees division, stable employment, quit rates and job vacancies all are in the worst condition they’ve ever been―a unique and challenging situation. The height of the pandemic, in 2021, saw a dizzying spike in retirements, which has abated but will continue until well past 2025, when the youngest baby boomers turn 65.

The pandemic arrived just as employment in the public sector peaked in January and February 2020. It had taken 11 years for state and local governments alike to recover from the Great Recession of 2008. Since that peak, state and local employment is down about half a million jobs.

MissionSquare forecasts that in the next two decades, governments will need more knowledge workers, such as medical and science specialists, and fewer workers whose jobs might be replaced by technology, such as parking enforcement officers, timekeepers, administrative assistants and switchboard operators.

Its research shows that public employees’ morale is rising but still low: up from about 40 percent in October 2020 to about 50 percent today. As you may have guessed, stress and burnout are up and gratitude is down, partly due to the length of the pandemic. Most employees still value serving the community.

Among public employees considering leaving their jobs, a third are thinking about retiring. One in 4 wants to leave government entirely and 1 in 5 wants to stay in their line of work but for a different employer. Many cite burnout or lack of work/life balance. Most are moving away from acute concerns about safety around COVID-19 to concerns about staffing—specifically, recruitment and retention.

The research finds that governments are having a particularly hard time filling jobs in nursing, engineering, policing, prisons, dispatch and emergency response. Smaller jurisdictions are having a harder time filling positions than larger ones, and 94 percent of public sector HR directors say they’re seeing fewer qualified applicants, for example in healthcare and maintenance.

Despite these challenges, only a sliver more than a third of public sector employers are offering flexible work hours, and only 54 percent consider diversity, equity and inclusion important, although that number is rising over time.

On the flip side, financial wellness programs tailored to state and local workers are a hit with employees: 65 percent of employees think they’re important―but only 29 percent of employers offer them. Tuition reimbursement and programs to reduce student loan debt also are popular.

Among younger people, meaningful work was identified as a top priority, along with an inclusive and welcoming environment. The pandemic has made them more interested in public service, especially mission-driven work that improves the community, aligns with their values and allows them to see the direct impact they’re having. These factors point to a competitive advantage that public service jobs may have over the private sector.

Throughout the meeting, members of the AFT Public Employees Short Staffing Task Force identified many causes behind the workforce shortages and almost as many strategies and solutions. Curtis and Feist expressed confidence in the task force being able to find best practices in recruitment and retention, and then turning these practices into state legislation or contract language.

Rays of hope

For every problem, the task force members have solutions. And they have hope: There’s a new generation of activists ripe for the kinds of public service that will help communities thrive. They understand the role of public service.

“If we’re going to be successful in getting people excited about public work, we need to bring them to realize that it’s exciting work,” AFT Public Employees Director Jenn Porcari said, giving an example of marine biologists working to keep endangered fish alive. “It’s about the common good.”

In addition to the co-chairs, members of the task force are Beth Santin, a member of the Maryland Professional Employees Council and an IT professional in the state Department of Natural Resources; Michelle Wheat, a vice president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees and a Department of Transportation trainer; Danielle Bridger, PEF Region 8 coordinator and auditor in the Office of the State Comptroller; Tanesha McQueen of Colorado WINS and a correctional youth services officer; Danelle Beck, president of the Alaska Confidential Employees Association and a human resources consultant; Matt Emigholz, president of the Illinois Federation of Public Employees and a Department of Transportation mechanic; Loren Kriegel, vice president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees and a corrections officer; and Shawn Brown, vice president for collective bargaining in Connecticut’s University Health Professionals and an administrative fiscal assistant.

Sitting in on the meeting were Sue Parton, president of the Federation of Indian Service Employees and a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, and Jeff Kasper, business manager with the Alaska Public Employees Association.

A final report is expected this fall.

[Annette Licitra]