Employers across the nation are having a difficult time hiring right now, and one area where that is apparent is the shortage of workers in government.
The City of Salina is facing issues hiring new employees. As of April 5, the city’s jobs website showed a total of 51 available openings in fulltime and part-time positions.
There have been a number of factors leading up to this workforce issue, but the pandemic has made things much worse and more pronounced, even as studies have been showing this might be an issue in the public and municipal sector.
“In city management circles 20-plus years ago, publications were predicting, demographically that the day was going to come,” said Salina City Manager Mike Schrage. “That shift of baby boomers leaving the (workforce) population was anticipated.”
While this issue is seen from the public in areas such as public works, utilities, the police and fire departments and parks and recreation, Schrage said the organization as a whole has struggled to maintain an adequate workforce.
“Across the board we see less applicants for positions and more opportunities for the applicants we do have, in terms of the choices they have and their ability to move on to a better opportunity more quickly,” Schrage said.
Natalie Fischer, the human resources director for the City of Salina agreed that these opportunities in other businesses and industries is hampering the efforts of the city to hire more workers, particularly in one area that picked up during the pandemic.
“We are seeing more individuals leaving for opportunities to work from home,” Fischer said.
Making changes to address the hiring struggles
Fischer said this struggle to find employees is causing her office and the city as a whole to step back and see what might be done.
“It’s making us really review and focus on the way we do things,” Fischer said. “(We’re reviewing) everything from some of our policies to our benefits.”
One thing that is being reviewed is the possibility of hiring younger employees for some positions.
“A couple of our areas we had to review and make sure we complied with child labor laws, whether it’s making sure if we’re hiring someone under the age of 18 for seasonal, the supervisors know they can’t run certain equipment or handle certain chemicals,” Fischer said.
The city also has to look at hour limitations for those under 16 years old and make sure those regulations are followed and the employees understand them.
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Understanding these limitations is something new to the city, but as it is looking for more people to hire for some positions it has to look at where the potential employee base may be.
“(These are) some of the things we’ve never considered before,” Fischer said. “It’s forcing us to think differently about our workforce and how to manage it.”
The city is hoping to understand the overall hiring market. They are starting a pay plan study that is being conducted by Evergreen Solutions.
“I hope it gives us some data that we can use, rather than just the speculation, that shows if we’re falling behind to the market (in regards to pay) exactly how much we are falling short,” Fischer said.
Schrage said he’s looking forward to seeing the results of this study, especially in terms of how the city compares in its pay to other employers.
“That’s going to tell us what our competition is and what our pay rates need to be (so we can) be competitive,” Schrage said. “That’s one variable that we can address and that would (also) help with recruitment and retention.”
Fischer said the study by Evergreen is ongoing, but the city is expecting to see some preliminary results of it by the end of April.
The city knows it is falling behind with people that have and use a commercial driver’s license.
“Their market value right now is better than what we pay, and we know that, but we don’t have the ability to (get them that value) right now,” Fischer said.
Fischer said the need is huge right now for CDL drivers, and there is real competition for these employees.
“When we do hire someone away from another employer, (that employer) has the ability to come back and offer more money,” Fischer said. “With our structured pay, that’s not an option for us.”
Fischer said that is just one example of some of the struggles the public sector faces compared to the private sector.
How Salina is making city employment more attractive
The city is doing what it can to try and recruit employees to work for it. Fischer said in the past there were certain departments that were shorter staffed than others and marketing like billboards for the Salina Police Department were common.
“Unfortunately over the last 24 months particularly, we tend to have more openings in (all) of our areas,” she said.
Now, the city is using tools like having a stronger presence on social media, letting people know about positions that are open. Fischer said the city is also doing more advertising for jobs than in the past.
“We’re trying some alternative forms of advertising,” she said. “For the first time, we’ve done some radio advertising this year.”
In addition to advertising open positions, the city is also making sure to let potential employees know about what it offers, both in terms of traditional work benefits and in what makes working for Salina different.
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“We try to focus on what I think sets us apart,” Fischer said. “For purely the benefits side of things, we have really, really good health insurance. Our retirement system is good.”
She said the city’s health insurance includes dental and prescription, and she is proud that the city has been able to keep insurance premiums at a constant level.
Salina understands it’s not just health insurance and retirement plans or paid sick and vacation leave that people look at when they apply for a job, though, so Fischer said the city has really been focusing on things that might not seem so tangible.
“We’ve started trying to appeal to individuals that maybe don’t want to travel a whole lot, that get to spend nights at home,” she said.
Finally, Fischer said her office focuses on another key benefit of working for the city.
“It’s impactful work in our community,” Fischer said.