Worcester aims to fill more than 170 vacant municipal positions

WORCESTER — If you’ve always wanted to work for the City, now might be the time, as the big resignation has led to 177 vacancies.

“It’s an employee market,” acting city manager Eric Batista said during a meeting on Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, there were 177 city vacancies, including full-time, part-time, paid and credited internships, seasonal and temporary positions, according to city human resources director Bill Bagley.

The city has about 2,100 jobs (not including Worcester public school positions), and thus 8.4% of jobs are open.

And for every high-level opening – for example, the permanent position of city manager – there are many other vacancies among the staff who keep the city running day-to-day.

For example, 112 open positions are for workers in the Department of Public Works and Parks, including 101 seasonal jobs. These positions include chief lifeguards and equipment operators.

Additionally, 13 are for 911 dispatchers.

However, vacancies are not unique to Worcester.

“The City of Worcester is not alone in this challenge,” Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) executive director and CEO Geoff Beckwith said Thursday. “It’s very common. This is a real problem statewide.

The Great Resignation, or Great Reshuffle, began in the spring of 2021, when the economy began to emerge from the pandemic and demand for workers grew among businesses.

Job postings and quits hit historic highs – 4.53 million workers left their jobs in March 2022, beating the previous high of 4.51 million in November 2021, according to the US Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment – while layoff rates have fallen to record lows.

Additionally, 44% of employees are “job seekers,” according to Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, released in March.

Combination of factors

Bagley and Batista cited a combination of factors that explain the vacancies.

There are early retirements from an aging workforce, and then many employees decided to retire early rather than work during the pandemic.

Bagley said 158 people retired between March 1, 2020 and July 31. Before the pandemic, the city averaged about 60 retirements a year, he added.

Then there are the resignations as people reevaluate priorities during a pandemic. As in the private sector, some are looking for more flexibility, higher salaries (Batista said employees are finding new jobs that in some cases offer salary increases of $30,000 to $50,000), new challenges and Moreover.

In the same timeline from March 1, 2020, to July 31, 224 people resigned from city government, Bagley said.

And in a market where jobs require specialized skills — Beckwith mentioned that municipal finance and engineering, for example, require a deep understanding of government financing and contracts that similar positions in the private sector may not have — this has led to a mismatch between a limited number of qualified applicants and many job openings.

Thus, a game of municipal “musical chairs” often occurs, where vacancies lead to other vacancies, exacerbating the problem.

“It takes longer than anyone can remember to fill these positions,” Beckwith said. “It leads to disruption, burnout of employees working very hard to make up the difference and it leads to musical chairs.”

So what can be done to fill these positions?

Tactics to fill vacancies

Bagley and Batista said the city is trying a number of tactics — both at City Hall and in the broader marketplace.

Inside City Hall, the city is conducting a salary survey and trying to increase pay rates to be as competitive as possible, providing increasing flexibility on hours or benefits to accommodate more quality of life issues, and streamlines the hiring process – for example, eliminating the physical and drug test required for non-union members.

It is also expanding its outreach efforts as part of a larger initiative to increase diversity in the ranks. The city is also trying to increasingly centralize the hiring process in human resources rather than having decisions flow through different departments, human resources and the budget office.

The city and MMA are also trying to get the message out about the benefits of public service.

“It’s (roughly) how can I make an impact in the city where I live, work, play?” Batista said. “What does it look like for (locals) to give back to the city that has given them so much?”

City spokesman Robert Burgess said he was also helping develop a marketing campaign with the city manager’s office. The campaign seeks both to dispel myths that city service is the haunt of paper-pressing bureaucrats and to tout the benefits of public service.

“If we can get this message out about why working for the city is beneficial, that it’s rewarding, that you can make a difference, then maybe more people will change their minds and think about us first,” Burgess said. “At City Hall, you meet normal people who work hard for their community.”

Batista accepted.

“It’s a naïve thought that to be in government you have to be in politics,” Batista said. “He has a whole series of positions that are not political positions.”

Beckwith said the problem will likely continue until pipelines for municipal quarries are established.

“It’s a common problem, it’s a common problem for communities,” Beckwith said. “But this is a big challenge that cannot be solved immediately…a concerted effort must be made to get young people to see local government as a place where they can work.”

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