by Dan Tienter, Municipal Advisor
and Kyle Sawyer, Senior Fiscal Consultant
With a shortage of skilled, knowledgeable workers and an unprecedented wave of staff departures, local governments are finding it increasingly difficult to plan for staff transitions. Annual quit rates in the public sector workforce have increased from 6.1% in 2010 to 11.7% in 2020. In addition, according to a recent public employee survey, 38% of governments say their workers are accelerating retirement plans compared to 2008 when 44% of governments said workers were postponing retirement. This has resulted in the highest number and rate of state and local government job openings in the past 20 years.
Gone are the days of posting a position for two weeks, receiving a plethora of applicants, and filling the position with ease. We are now operating in an environment where prospective employees have far more leverage and cities are forced beyond the “normal” hiring and transition process. Today, it’s not uncommon for an open local government position to be posted with no end date and remain open for months with no success in filling it. Moreover, positions often end up being reposted due to a lack of qualified applicants or candidates dropping out of the hiring process to accept a competing offer.
These shifting dynamics have created a perfect storm of sorts, making planning ahead for succession and transition more important than ever! When planning for staff transitions within your organization, consider the following strategies:
- Cross Train – It is imperative to train staff on duties outside of their regular responsibilities to ensure strong job coverage in the event of an unexpected vacancy. Equally important, be sure to document processes and procedures.
- Avoid Knowledge Silos – Experienced staff often have the benefit of long-standing relationships with colleagues, giving them a deeper understanding of how their roles may impact others and/or the process. Encourage those individuals to share their technical and interpersonal knowledge to ensure continuity of interdepartmental relationship.
- Develop a Succession Plan – A thoughtful succession plan outlines key duties and responsibilities and often identifies existing junior staff for further development opportunities and mentorship. This can help with longevity and allow for more seamless transitions.
- Prepare Position Transition Guides – Before a departing staff member leaves the organization, ask that employee to draft a brief document describing current activities, the status of projects in-flight, potential next steps, and contact information for other involved in the task. It will provide the next person with a great place to pick up the work.
- Assess Your Efforts Annually – Whether it’s knowledge sharing, succession planning, or developing junior employees, conduct an annual staff assessment relative to known and potential future transitions and adjust your strategies accordingly.
Of course, there are always circumstances when you get the opportunity to plan, and it’s natural to feel a sense of panic when an employee announces a sudden departure. Try not to act on that panic when seeking a replacement; you have options! First, lean on your transition strategies. Determine who is cross trained for the role, have your departing employee complete a transition guide and review documented procedures to ensure they’re still accurate. When considering who can fulfill the responsibilities of the role while its technically vacant, think beyond your own department. There may a be a valuable resource in a different part of the organization could be shared or you could outsource those duties, depending on the complexity of the role and the length of time you expect the position to be vacant.
Next, review and update the position’s job description and consider whether the minimum requirements are still appropriate for the position and your organizational needs. It is also important to assess peer organization compensation and benefits packages to see how you stack up. Local governments are increasing pay ranges, offering more flexible schedules, and providing substantial benefits to attract and retain the best talent; you want your open position to stand out! Finally, when it comes to evaluating applicants and interviewing candidates, don’t rush just to fill the position quickly. While finding the right person may take several weeks or months, a bad hire could be with you for years.
So, what happens if you find yourself in a long-term vacancy scenario? Never fear; you still have options! You may consider appointing a current staff member to an “acting” position until you find a permanent replacement. Doing so allows for internal continuity, generally results in cost-savings, and may provide a promising junior employee with a “stretch assignment” or an opportunity to audition for the permanent position. However, if your organization doesn’t have the bandwidth, you may also explore “interim staffing” with a contracted employee or service who can provide day-to-day support until you complete the hiring process and onboard your new team member.
If you choose to explore interim staffing, first consider the scope of services needed. Ask yourself the following:
- What are the department’s day-to-day needs?
- Are there any big deadlines approaching?
- Are there any special projects that need to be completed?
- Is the position responsible for supervising and training others?
- How much can the organization afford to pay for interim services?
- Can the work be completed remotely?
- How can we successfully transition back from interim resources to regular staff?
Make sure you know the individual you are hiring, not just the firm, to ensure the quality of work in your department isn’t negatively impacted. Conduct a personal interview with the proposed interim staffer and check client references. It’s also a smart idea to negotiate a contract that allows you to opt out at your discretion should you be dissatisfied with the service, or you finally land the perfect candidate for the vacant role.
It may seem like an inconvenience or unnecessary expense to have a third-party fill in, but it’s also an opportunity to have a neutral professional deliver an objective review of your operations. For example, interim staff can provide insight on everything from internal controls to organizational structure, which often results in greater efficiencies and better processes. Additionally, interim staff may participate in the hiring process, using their insight into the position and its demands, to help select a candidate who will be most successful in the regular role. They can also ease the transition when an organization finally hires a candidate. Local governments often overlap interim staff and their new hire by one or two weeks to “download” as much information as possible. These overlapping periods may also allow the interim staff to complete projects and avoid the inefficiencies of partially finished work. And the icing on the cake? Hiring interim staff comes without the added costs of benefits, which means local governments can actually save money and not exceed their adopted budgets while working to fill a vacant position.
Local governments and school districts are perpetual entities. Since they go on forever, so will the need for thoughtful staff transitions. By implementing prudent strategies and practices, you will go a long way in fulfilling that need.
Ehlers bring decades of local government finance experience to their role assisting clients with interim staffing needs. If you have an upcoming employee transition, please reach out to us!
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