LIMA — The workforce shortage is squeezing anyone looking to hire. Applicant pools have diminished. Qualified workers are most likely already employed.
And when the one providing the funds to hire happens to be taxpayers, public entities run up against even more roadblocks, such as public buy-in.
Not everyone easily agrees how much to pay whom, and that can cause issues.
During today’s already tight labor market, local governments — just like private companies — are having to find new ways to train and attract the right people to their organizations. They have to do so while balancing taxpayer concerns with the cost of higher compensation, according to numbers found in The Lima News’ 26th annual review of government salaries.
In 2017, the Village of Ottawa completed a wage study, and the numbers quickly proved not all employees were being paid their fair share when compared to other public entities — a difficult situation partially caused by the Great Recession.
When the Great Recession hit in 2009, many local governments saw overstretched budgets, which forced many public municipalities across the country to stop hiring altogether and pushing older employees to take early retirements.
But a steady growth pattern since that time has placed responsible governments back in shape by 2019, and hiring has largely rebounded. Consequently, Ottawa council also agreed to update its pay scales, allocating additional funds to salary line-items over the next few years to close the gap between Ottawa and surrounding municipalities.
“In an effort to retain (workers), we have to be competitive. That’s what it’s all about,” Ottawa Mayor Dean Meyer said. “Our police department was one of the bigger areas that needed adjusted. … We need to be able to compensate them. They put their life on the line.”
Other municipalities and private businesses reflect the same hiring patterns. For example, in the last decade alone, the City of Lima gained 45 employees.
But that creates a troublesome trend for those ready to hire. While good-paying entry-level job postings can still attract resumes in local governments, mid- to late-career positions, such as plant operators, engineers and attorneys, have a harder time getting filled without finding better ways to attract candidates.
In some cases, more pressing needs — such as Allen County’s deteriorating capital — remove any chance of an annual raise at all, as was seen in 2019. In other cases, there’s a lack of buy-in from associated boards or ruling bodies, such as Lima council disagreeing with city administration on details of hiring a technology department director.
Whatever the reason, the end result allows those with sought-after skills to look into the more financially rewarding private sector if the public sector can’t offer a wage worth a worker’s time.
“As far as being a municipal worker and employee of the village, the benefits are generally pretty good, but if you don’t keep up with wages, you’re not going to attract the good employees,” Meyer said.
Wages and benefits
While going forward with a full study is one way of upgrading pay scales, as Ottawa has done, governments do have other ways to find out if they are paying market rates.
Auglaize County Administrator Erica Preston said the county last completed a full salary survey in 2014, but she will often communicate through a statewide association to “spot-check” salaries of certain positions.
“For the vacancies we have now, we do have a smaller applicant pool when the job markets wasn’t as big as it was,” Preston said. “In a bit more of a rural area, finding someone with the right degree takes some more time.”
The City of Lima made a similar move to spot-check wages in regards to its seasonal workers in early 2019. While Lima’s summer positions were paid closer to minimum wage, a bump of about 25 cents to more than a dollar was created and approved to help with bringing in more applicants.
“In 2018, we had difficulty in some areas recruiting and retaining seasonal workers as the established pay rates in this relatively tight local labor market were not sufficient to attract and retain workers,” former Lima Human Resource Director Vince Ozier wrote in a memo to Lima City Council explaining the need.
Ironically, Ozier took a new position in the private sector not soon after council’s approval of the seasonal worker pay raise. Chief of Staff Sharetta Smith has been acting as interim human resources director since that time.
“In order to get that talent, you have to figure out a way to balance remaining competitive as well as offering a salary that taxpayers are comfortable with,” Smith said.
If wages aren’t the primary variable keeping workers at their government-issued desks, local governments do have a few additional benefits to flout. First, there’s the obvious benefits package. In general, government jobs offer health insurance, retirement options and decent vacation time, as well as more stability than private jobs.
Outside of such benefits, Smith said government jobs create buy-in because of what it means to be a public servant. Firefighters and police officers are some of the more obvious example of a government job that requires significant buy-in to those assuming that role.
“They want to be in that industry,” Smith said. “(To attract workers) you talk about the benefits of being a public servant, using your talent, skills and expertise to make an impact where you live. I’ve worked in government since 2009, for about 10 years, and no day is ever the same. It may be like that in other industries, but (government jobs) are very challenging and rewarding positions, and you see a direct impact from the work you do almost every day.”
Looking to the future
While specialty positions can be hard to fill today, cities and counties are moving now to make sure they are easier to fill in the future, by taking many of the same proactive steps towards training that private industry is starting to warm up to today.
To deal with finding certified plant operators and engineers, the city has talked with Allen County and Rhodes State College over the past year to find a way to form some sort of apprenticeship program to fill such positions in the future. Smith said there has also been some consideration between the city and county to create a way to swap plant workers when necessary.
Lima is also involved in many of the same private economic development and workforce issues being tackled by the county, such as conversations with high-schoolers about local job opportunities, Smith said.
Looking further into the future, Lima is also considering what needs to be done as Baby Boomers reach retirement age and start leaving in larger numbers.
“(Baby Boomers) are the largest cohort of births in recent history, and they are entering retirement age. And that’s going to leave a huge gap,” Smith said. “We’ve been out there really looking and thinking about, ‘How do we get ready as Baby Boomers retire?’”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.