Top HR Challenges Facing the Public Sector — and How to Overcome Them

January 22, 2024HRC


Top HR Challenges Facing the Public Sector — and How to Overcome Them

January 22, 2024 HRC

With 2022 underway, employers of all kinds are reckoning with a challenging Human Resources landscape. Increased competition for skilled workers, constantly changing COVID safety protocols, hybrid and remote workplace hurdles, and a competitive hiring space where top talent is setting their own terms have all added a new complexity to hiring and retaining workers. If that wasn’t enough, increased turnover and still-high levels of resignations have countless HR departments scrambling. And that’s true of both public and private sector employers, experts said.

“Like their counterparts in the private sector, [public sector organizations] are facing staff shortages, unmet customer demands, employee stress and burnout, increased resignations — including a higher than typical number of age- or retirement-related resignations — [difficulty] retaining talented staff, and competition for new hires,” said Jack Wiley, Chief Scientific Officer at management consulting firm Engage2Excel and author of The Employee-Centric Manager: 8 Keys to People-Management Effectiveness.

Disproportionately impacted by furloughs, budget cuts, and service stoppages for health-related safety reasons, public sector employers have lagged in relation to the private sector in recovering from pandemic job losses, according to public policy nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts. And that slower recovery is magnified given the immense impact the public sector has on day-to-day life, as well as the significant size of the sector. Public sector employees include federal, state, and local government employees; public transit and public education workers; law enforcement officers; and more. According to October 2021 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), government workers alone make up 21.9 million employees, or 14.8% of the non-farm workforce in the United States.

But while the challenges are real, experts say there are concrete steps public sector HR professionals can take to tackle the most pressing public sector HR issues head on — and to position their organizations for growth and increased employee engagement going forward. Here’s what they recommend.

The Challenges 

Finding, hiring, and retaining qualified candidates for open positions is at the core of Human Resources, but for public sector employers, making sure jobs are filled takes on an additional urgency.

“When there are vacancies within public sector positions, it has a direct impact on the communities those agencies serve,” said Greg Preece, principal and senior consultant at Human Resources consultancy FireHR and a former firefighter and paramedic. “This ranges from solid waste collection and police, fire, and EMS responders, to Head Start [program] delivery, street repairs, 911 call takers, and beyond.”

“The mission of [these] agencies is literally…critical,” agreed Gary Leikin, CEO of government workflow automation platform SimpliGov. “Administration of health and human services, particularly for displaced populations; child support applications; emergency rental assistance; and related safety-net type of services is of utmost importance. It’s not like a glitch in a streaming service where you can’t download the next episode of a series — life literally depends on it.”

With stakes this high, confronting and overcoming pressing challenges is essential. These are the issues experts say Human Resources teams should be prioritizing.

4 Public Sector Issues HR Teams Need to Prioritize

1. The Bureaucracy Bind

Experts said that the stereotypes about government bureaucracy don’t necessarily come from nowhere; there’s a grain of truth to them in that many public sector and government jobs have more layers to navigate than comparable private sector positions. And when it comes to hiring, that can cause problems, they cautioned.

Hard-to-find job listings, difficult-to-parse job titles, and cumbersome application processes can weed out promising candidates before they even complete their applications, and slow response times can mean the candidates that do apply can be snapped up by faster-moving firms before they’ve even been offered a first interview.

The solution? Public sector firms that want to compete for and keep sought-after candidates need to make applying easier — immediately, experts said.

“The public sector needs to make it easy to apply for roles and make opportunities visible to citizens [of the community],” Leikin said. “It’s also important to ensure the application and candidate review process is efficient and timely [so] candidates [aren’t] hired by other organizations or companies [first]. The government is often competing with the private sector for the same candidates and needs to move at the same speed to hire the best [people].”

“With the job market as competitive as it is, applicants have little patience for overly burdensome and lengthy hiring processes,” Preece agreed. “Public sector employers should review their hiring processes and work with all stakeholders to make reforms that will allow for more efficiency and streamlining.”

2. On-the-Job Opportunities

Similarly, the same issues — which can manifest as frustratingly rigid job parameters, hidebound work processes, and constrained opportunities for promotion or increased compensation — can show up as challenges in the retention of employees, too. “One of the biggest issues that HR departments face in the public sector is that there is a lack of engagement due to the bureaucratic systems and budgetary constraints that many organizations have in place,” said Paola Accettola, principal and CEO of HR services firm True North HR.

While some elements aren’t changing anytime soon (overhauling pay scales and job classifications may not be within HR’s mandate), forward-thinking Human Resources departments can work with management to increase job satisfaction where they can. A major factor in the satisfaction employees feel in their day-to-day jobs and careers overall is how much opportunity they’re being offered for training and development and learning new skills.

“In the context of the current war for talent, an organization must make an appealing statement about what it has to offer a new hire in terms of experiences and rewards in exchange for what the prospective employee brings in talent and commitment,” Wiley said.

3. More Visibility

A rigid, unchanging hiring process can go hand in hand with insularity in some public sector positions, which keeps potential hires from even knowing a job (or an employer) exists. To maximize the chances of finding the best possible candidates, governmental organizations and public enterprises need to make sure they’re meeting job seekers where they are, with a special focus on outreach to younger workers.

“Public agencies must do a better job of getting into the community and in front of high school and college students and other community organizations to tout the benefits of working in the public sector and the ability it provides to serve the common good,” said Preece.

4. Communicating the Benefits

A continual problem, experts said, is the perception that public sector jobs underpay relative to the private sector. And while it’s not always the case that public sector employers pay less than their private sector counterparts, there are fields and positions where public sector employers simply can’t match the compensation and benefits packages that for-profit firms offer. In the current race to win over top talent, even highly motivated public departments may find that they can’t move as nimbly to adjust salary offerings, or be as flexible with other benefits, as less constrained private firms can.

So what can public sector HR departments do? Preece said the key is to play up the benefits they do offer. “While the public sector may not be able to compete with some of the compensation and perks of the private sector, it is imperative to communicate the benefits they do provide, such as a defined pension and deferred compensation plans, and the sense of service [that] working within the community provides.”

In fact, it’s that last element — the appeal to a sense of service and of working within a community — that can be a uniquely compelling selling point for public sector positions. The work of the public sector is crucial, and the pandemic only highlighted for many job seekers just how vital the roles that local government employees, public safety officers, healthcare workers, and social service providers are in supporting our collective well-being.

“At the top of the list of what employees most want [are] recognition for a job well done; interesting, challenging, and exciting work; job security; fair compensation; opportunities for career growth; positive working conditions; and confidence in the truthfulness of leaders at all levels,” Wiley said.

Much has been made of the generational preference of both millennials and Gen Z to have jobs that they find purposeful, meaningful, and impactful. So for many of these motivated, younger workers, working for the civil service or one of the many public organizations that keep society running could be highly appealing. There’s an opportunity for public sector employers to connect with employees who believe deeply in their mission and want to apply their talents in service of it. But HR needs to make sure they’re giving those candidates a chance to find them — and a reason to stay.

By Jennifer Ernst Beaudry

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