Madison County, N.Y. was recruiting a new financial analyst in January 2020. The job was hers, but she asked some tough questions.
“She wanted to know if we offered work-from-home options,” said County Administrator Mark Scimone. “I said ‘No, we’re a government, we don’t do work from home. That’s not something we do and that’s not something I envision us doing.’”
She took the job anyway and started in March. Within a week, she and many of the county’s roughly 600 employees were working from home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
That dramatic shift illustrates how fast the conventional wisdom regarding county personnel trends can change. County employees make up 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce, and though many of those jobs will remain fundamentally consistent, some characteristics and staffing levels may change significantly in the next few years.
First off, counties are in a more stable place now than they were a year ago.
“The recovery is in hand now, so we’re able to transition back to looking to the future again,” said Dave Pieklik, economic development director for Citrus County, Fla., which counts roughly 1,000 county employees in its workforce.
Pieklik hopes that means he’ll eventually be able to expand his one-person operation, but he also sees counties recruiting more “utility players” who are comfortable filling multiple roles.
“I’m primarily in charge of business recruitment, but if I need to, I can fill in as a public information officer,” he said. “That kind of flexibility is something counties value more and more.”
Flexibility is how Hennepin County, Minn. hopes to compete with the private sector for workers.
“The way we compete isn’t through massive salaries and the benefits don’t resonate with the next generation,” said Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Rossman. “The only area we can compete against the private sector is to offer flexibility in remote work. We know one thing for certain, the traditional work environment… wasting the time to get there, spending the money to get there… the culture we create of needing a tie and a suit to show that you are promotable, all of those ways of the past have kept people out of the workplace.
“If we change some of our cultural norms, if we allow more flexibility to meet people where they are, we’re working on true employment disparity work.”
Rossman and County Administrator David Hough emphasize maintaining a workforce that reflects the community it serves, which in Hennepin County is 30 percent Black, Indigenous and people of color.
“We want to look like the people we serve,” Hough said. “The county workforce is going to be more diverse than we’ve seen over the last 10 years. We have very intentional strategies about recruitment and retention.”
Along with its focus on flexibility, Hennepin County is recruiting early, offering job training for positions without degree requirements and offering a robust tuition reimbursement program, aiming to grow with its employees and foster long-term relationships. Though Rossman said the county doesn’t plan to compete with private sector on high-level salaries, most county jobs pay at least $20 per hour.
Several officials indicated that more employees working remotely would mean their counties could reduce office space and save on maintenance, heating and rent expenses.
San Miguel County, Colo. recently saw turnover for the first time in four decades in its sheriff’s and assessor’s offices, and in 2016, five county employees with 150 years of experience among them retired.
“From a recruiting standpoint, we have been fortunate being a place where people want to live, with natural beauty, recreation and cultural amenities,” said County Administrator Mike Bordogna. “We have great schools and pay comparatively well for the region, however, we also have some extreme challenges, like housing costs.”
Bordogna bets on cultural fit making the difference for candidates.
“The amount of quality applicants is astounding now,” he said. “We are getting to pick not only those that are highly qualified, but those that share our values and vision for the future.”
Remote work is proving financially viable for Madison County, which had previously missed out on $100,000 because of missed appointments prior to the widespread insurance reimbursement of telehealth.
All of this remote work needs support, too. Albany County, Wyo. Commission Chairman Pete Gosar anticipates adding to his county’s 186 staff members to support increased technological needs. “As more county business moves online and virtual meetings become a standard, I believe Albany County will need more people to place and monitor county information on the web,” he said. “Additionally, there will be a growing need for cybersecurity expertise.”
Counties will continue to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic.
“We’re looking at the mental health aspect of COVID, people who never had issues are needing therapy, so that’s an area that we’re looking at, what we will need to address in our community long-term,” Scimone said.
And demographic trends will also drive growth.
Counties with significant aging populations are eyeing staffing shifts to meet their needs. Citrus County, Fla. is increasing its veterans affairs staffing, and New Hanover County, N.C. has already increased staffing in traditional human services roles, but also with technological support to help seniors navigate the digital environment, Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman said.
The pandemic has also spurred federal help to bolster public health staffing. The American Rescue Plan includes $3.4 billion to fund new hiring for local and state governmental public health departments and a $3 billion grant program for under-resourced health departments to strengthen their workforce in the long term.
“It’s something very much needed to strengthen our nation’s public health security as a whole,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “The local public health system nationwide has been starved over the past few decades. The results of this disinvestment are seen in the COVID-19 response, as local health departments are stretched thin and staff are pulled away from other essential areas like food safety, HIV prevention, and opioid overdose prevention, in order to respond to the pandemic.”