Hoping to fill some of its 784 vacant positions, the Kansas state government held a virtual job fair last week that attracted 204 participants.
“These are good-paying jobs with excellent benefits, and we look forward to finding high-quality candidates that are passionate about contributing their talents for the betterment of Kansas,” Lt. Gov. and Secretary of Commerce David Toland said in a statement announcing the event.
Inflation, low unemployment, and the COVID-19 pandemic changed recruitment and hiring practices, according to a spokesman for KANSASWORKS, the state’s job-matching system. Vacancies have hit almost all sectors of state government, with the highest numbers in corrections, front office, and healthcare.
States, local governments, and public schools across the United States are scrambling to fill jobs as they try to compete with the private sector by boosting pay, offering hiring bonuses, allowing flexible working options, and even issuing bonds to finance affordable housing for certain workers as rents soar.
Public sector employment is in “a real crisis,” according to Dave Kamper, senior state policy coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute.
“We are down nationally almost 2% from the pre-pandemic period (February 2020),” he said. “In recent years, as we recovered from the pandemic, state and local government jobs have become less attractive because their pay has not kept up with pay in private sector jobs.”
After the pandemic drove the nation’s jobless rate to as high as 14.8% in April 2020, the ranks of the unemployed have fallen. April 2023’s rate was 3.4% amid a continuing worker shortage, which combined with high inflation, has driven up private-sector wages.
State, local government, and education job openings rose to 922,000 in March from 876,000 in February and 894,000 in March 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bond rating agencies are keeping their eye on the jobs situation.
In an April report, Fitch Ratings said wage pressures for local governments are expected to remain elevated for some time, with wage inflation being particularly challenging for public school districts.
“New collective bargaining agreements will further pressure wage inflation and increase risk to budgetary instability as an expected mild recession triggers an eventual tapering of revenue growth,” the report said.
Cities are experiencing the biggest vacancies in healthcare, public safety, information technology, and positions that require a commercial driver’s license, according to Lena Geraghty, the National League of Cities’ sustainability and innovation director.
“Many cities are reevaluating their wage structures to bring them into alignment regionally and make local government more competitive,” she said in an email. “Others are exploring more flexible work options including nontraditional hours of work and enabling hybrid work depending on the role.”
Counties, which employ more than 3.6 million workers in areas including public safety, courts, healthcare, elections, and tax collection, are also feeling the hiring pinch.
“As employers, county governments face the challenge of competing with the private sector, which generally is able to produce a more agile response to the changing price of labor,” the National Association of Counties said in a February report.
Teacher shortages are being felt across the nation.
Texas has the nation’s largest teacher labor market with about 370,000 educators, according to a February report from the state’s Teacher Vacancy Task Force established by Gov. Greg Abbott last year. The report pointed to challenges that included a steep increase in attrition rates and salary increases that do not keep pace with high inflation rates.
Its top recommendations to reduce teacher vacancies were raising compensation, providing quality training and support, and improving working conditions.
A bill that cleared the Texas Senate would increase teacher pay by $2,000 with educators in districts with enrollment of 20,000 or less receiving an additional $4,000 boost.
The chamber also passed legislation that would ban a move by several districts to adopt a four-day school week to enhance teacher retention.
A survey last year by the Texas State Teachers Association found a record 70% of its members “seriously considering leaving the profession,” up from 53% in a 2018 survey.
In addition to lingering stress from the pandemic, inadequate pay, political attacks on teachers, and the failure of state officials to protect the health and safety of students and school employees were eroding teacher morale, according to Ovidia Molina, the group’s president.
Austin Independent School District, which has 400 teacher vacancies, will boost teacher pay by 7% as part of a 2023-24 employee compensation package funded in part with budget reserves that the school board approved Thursday.
Large and small Texas districts have turned to bond-financed housing to entice teachers with lower-cost accommodations.
Pflugerville ISD, which serves more than 25,000 students at 34 campuses north of Austin, won voter approval in November for nearly $44 million of bonds to fund up to 100 units of affordable housing for teachers. Superintendent Douglas Killian, who pushed for the ballot measure, told the school board in August that teachers from outside the Austin area are willing to work for the district until they begin searching for a place to live.
“They simply can’t afford (the housing costs) and they turn us down,” he said.
Voters in the small, rural west Texas Rankin ISD approved $4 million of bonds in November “for the purpose of constructing, renovating, acquiring, and equipping housing for teachers.”
School Superintendent Samuel Wyatt said last fall the district has been financing teacher housing for several years.
“Without teacher houses, it would be very difficult to hire and keep quality teachers,” he said.
Sky-high housing costs in California have led some districts in that state to pursue bond issues to fund teacher and workforce housing.
The San Diego Unified School District included teacher and workforce housing in a long list of projects funded through a $3.2 billion bond program approved by voters last year.
In some states, the diminishment of a key public sector benefit may be harming recruitment.
Pensions, which have long been a top draw for job seekers, have lost some of their luster as rising costs led to heftier employee contributions and hybrid and tiered retirement plans that reduce benefits, particularly for newer workers.
“Many local governments have had to reduce pension benefits for new hires to ensure balanced budgets and that pensions are able to continue to support retired employees who are receiving benefits,” Geraghty said.
To help address a $1.9 billion unfunded liability, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum last month signed into law a bill to close the state’s current defined benefit pension plan to new hires, who will be offered a defined contribution plan, which is similar to a 401(k) account.