In an Improving Job Market, Mayors Struggle to Compete for Top Talent

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Each quarter, NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research analyzes local government employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(Getty Images)
With the unemployment rate hovering below five percent, cities hoping to once again grow their ranks will have difficulty finding talented workers. (Getty Images)

From low oil prices and Brexit to the Fed, there are a lot of reasons to be uncertain about the strength of the economy. But when June’s BLS jobs report was released Friday, fears of a slowing economy were ever so slightly assuaged. Across sectors, the nation added 287,000 jobs in June, marking the largest gain since October.

Local governments extended their hiring spree into 18 consecutive months of growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cities and counties added 7,600 jobs in June. A total of 14,100 non-education local jobs were added in this quarter — albeit a sharp decrease from the previous quarter’s growth, which was revised to 32,400 jobs.

Local governments are still 100,900 jobs off of their pre-Recession employment peak. With the unemployment rate hovering below five percent, cities hoping to once again grow their ranks will have difficulty finding talented workers.

In our recent State of the Cities analysis (to be released this week), we find that mayors are keenly aware of the need to attract and retain talent within their own city halls. While strong employment numbers are certainly good for the local economy, governments are competing with the private sector over a diminishing number of highly skilled workers.

In their state of the city speeches, mayors discussed the difficulties they face and their proposed solutions. Concerned about the work-life balance, Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James wants to “ensure that women can bring their talents to the city.” Through an initiative called Women’s Empowerment, city employees will be eligible for paid parental leave for the first time this year.

In Duluth, Minnesota, the city is extending the ability to take paid time off beyond its unionized employees. “I’ve asked our Human Resource Department […] to develop a plan that ensures every qualified city employee has the ability to take paid safe and sick time,” said Mayor Emily Larson.

Pensions and other employment benefits continued to be a vexing issue for city budgets. “In order to hire and retain the best and brightest employees, we must continue to invest in them,” said Mayor Kenneth Gulley of Bessemer, Alabama. “Working with the city council, we were able to give our retirees a long overdue seven percent Cost of Living Increase. When we look around at some of our sister cities and the financial struggles they are experiencing, we should feel tremendously blessed,” he said.

Mayors noted that a talented and effective workforce is also diverse. “The city of Salt Lake has employees of every gender, race, ethnicity, economic background, and sexual orientation,” said Mayor Jackie Biskupski. “We will foster an even more inclusive environment, one that allows for innovation and helps our staff deliver products and services with greater appeal,” she said.

To fill positions, mayors also recognized the need to reach deeper into the community. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city will hire 5,000 new employees over the next year, targeting recruitment in communities with the most need – including ex-offenders. “For thousands of individuals, these are transformative opportunities — a chance for people to redefine themselves through integrity and hard work,” Garcetti said.

On the other side of the justice system, public safety recruitment was a frequently discussed topic among mayors. Through competitive compensation and inclusive hiring practices, “San Diego continues to be one of the safest big cities in the entire United States,” according to Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “We’re continuing our efforts to hire police officers from our community to ensure the force reflects the people it serves,” he said. In Seattle, where the city is hiring as many officers as the budget will allow, Mayor Edward Murray noted that “last year, 30 percent of the department’s hires were people of color.”

While the state of the economy remains uncertain, what is clear is that many cities are adapting talent recruitment and retention strategies that not only bolster competitiveness with the private sector but also ensure that the diversity of their communities is reflected in the workforce.

Read the full State of the Cities 2016 report this Thursday.

About the Author: Trevor Langan is the Research Associate for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities.