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State governments across the U.S. are facing a common HR problem: They lack a strong “B team," or trained and experienced employees who are ready to replace soon-to-retire veterans and move into leadership roles.  

High turnover, shrinking budgets, inadequate training and a failure to sell the appeal of government jobs are among the reasons states are squeezed for the next generation of government leaders, but the issue stems from two fundamental factors, says Richard Greene, a principal with Barrett and Greene Inc., a New York-based research firm that studies state and local policy and management. Greene recently co-authored a report on the biggest management challenges facing state and local government leaders.

“It comes down to keeping your new hires around long enough to get to that 'B team' level, and hiring from the private sector to fill these vacancies,” Greene says.

But retention and recruitment require money — something state governments often can’t spare as they recover from painful recession-era budget cuts and hiring freezes. This ubiquitous lack of funds, Greene says, has emphasized the need for smarter retention and recruitment strategies to keep the leadership pipeline full. 

Hiring for Keeps

Retention has always been a tough nut for government HR professionals to crack, but high turnover in entry-level positions is especially costly. Governments invest heavily in training new hires, who don’t become productive for a year or more.

Greene says that after completing training, many new employees leave their government jobs for the private sector where their skills and experience are more generously rewarded — not just immediately, but throughout their career.

“New hires aren’t just focused on the absolute value of their salary right now,” Greene says. “They’re looking for the opportunity for raises  and promotions in the future. Lots of state and local governments have had pay freezes, and that makes it difficult to provide that kind of incentive to workers.”

Greene says that government employees are also working harder for less money after picking up the slack from colleagues who were laid off during the recession.

“The stereotype of lazy government workers isn’t always true,” Greene says. “They work very hard. But states are not in a financial position to give raises and create promotions just to keep people happy.”

Give Employees a Stake 

So what can cash-strapped, understaffed state governments do to convince new hires to stay?

People need to feel appreciated and have a stake in the work they’re doing, Greene says.

“Make sure they know they’re doing a good job. It doesn’t cost a lot to choose 20 select employees to have lunch with the city manager, for example, but it goes a long way toward making people feel appreciated.”  

Getting buy-in from employees about how the government is doing is also a powerful retention strategy, says Greene.

“Decisions are made very high up, and the folks who are doing the day-to-day work aren’t brought in until the memo is sent around,” he says. “Being consulted on these higher level decisions makes for a more enjoyable place to work.”

Appeal to People's Desire for Purpose 

Filling the "B team" talent pipeline also requires attracting experienced talent from outside the public sector, says Katherine Barrett, Green's colleague and co-author on the management challenges report. 

“We’ve heard a lot about the need for better branding,” Barrett says. “The public sector hasn’t communicated well enough about the great variety of jobs you can do in the public sector, particularly to the younger generation.”

To appeal to private sector workers, state and local governments are focusing on the idea of purpose-driven work.

“When you’re recruiting someone from the private sector with the qualifications to fill a leadership role in government, their priorities will be different than new hires,” Barrett said.  “Compensation tends to be less of a factor. For these candidates, a job where they can do some good and have a real impact on the community is attractive.”

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