Governments have full budgets — and not enough workers 

Over the past two years, the U.S. federal and state governments have been managing more than $5 trillion in pandemic aid, and there is another $1.2 trillion in infrastructure funding on the way. This spending is landing in an economy where organizations of all kinds are desperately seeking workers. 

While the shortages of retail, restaurant and technical staff have received a great deal of attention, it is less noticed that governments at all levels are falling even further behind in the hiring race. And this workforce deficit is striking just as our nation is about to embark on some of the most ambitious infrastructure upgrades in half a century.    

From July 2021 through March, for every 10 government jobs posted, only about four were filled — the worst rate of the 10 major economic sectors tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and lower than the pre-pandemic average. Strip out education and the figure drops to three in 10. By comparison, private-sector leisure, hospitality, trade, transport and utility companies filled roughly 70 percent of openings.   

To add to the pressure, the government worker shortage is set to accelerate as The Great Retirement wave rolls in. About 15 percent of the federal workforce is eligible for retirement, and more than half of federal workers are 45 or older.   

The need for governments at all levels to raise their hiring game is clear.  At the moment though, their efforts are stymied by longstanding structural issues such as piecemeal recruitment strategies, tired marketing campaigns and outdated technology and recruiting channels. The pace of hiring can be glacial.    

Revamping all that is wrong with government hiring is not likely to happen quickly. But the situation is far from hopeless. For one thing, many workers today place a premium on jobs that impart a sense of meaning and purpose. That is what public service is all about. For another, if governments double down on that proposition and take some straightforward actions now, it could help them find the qualified, motivated workers they need. 

First, get the offering right. While job security and benefits have long been hallmarks of government service, workers today also want flexibility, a sense of belonging, professional development, and of course — meaning and purpose. They respond to job descriptions that are clear, precise — and short. To give just one example, a private-sector job description for a data scientist was two paragraphs long and included all the essentials. For a similar position in the federal government, the offering was seven jargon-stuffed pages. This is not just a waste of time but can be off-putting to applicants.  

Second, be proactive. Rather than waiting for applications to roll in, government agencies can harness job listing platforms and traditional recruiters to identify and engage potential candidates. This is a proven strategy for attracting talent who might otherwise not consider government service, including candidates from diverse backgrounds and rural areas.   

Third, close the deal. Job seekers don’t want to wait for months while a needlessly complicated hiring process grinds on — and often don’t have to, given the tight labor market. A recent report by NEOGOV found that it takes government agencies three times longer on average than the private sector to fill an open position. That gap could be narrowed if governments adopted practices used by other industries, such as batch interview days. 

In our experience, federal agencies that have implemented some or all of these actions typically cut hiring times by as much as half and filled more jobs.  

Finally, governments will not solve the problem by hiring alone. Increasing productivity through automation and digitization can help curtail the number of new workers they need.   

Americans may disagree about the size of government, but everyone wants one that performs well. The sheer number of vacant government jobs right now makes that problematic. A government of, by and for the people needs to have the right people in the right place to deliver public goods. And that starts with hiring the right talent.     

Adi Kumar is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company and global leader of the firm’s work with governments on infrastructure, economic development and public finance. Megan McConnell is a partner at McKinsey & Company, advising public sector organizations on human capital management.  Both are based in McKinsey’s Washington D.C. office. 

Tags government jobs Politics of the United States worker shortage

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