Innovations in County Workforce Development

Hiring and Retaining Those Who Keep Counties Running, Implementing Solutions Like Child Care, Family-Focused Initiatives, and Employee Well-Being Strategies

By Carl Wilkins
NCACC Strategic Communications Specialist

Counties across the state have been tasked to do more with less. Often times, this means with less human capital, which is arguably the most critical resource. Counties aren’t the only entities struggling in the areas of hiring and retention. Workforce gaps and shortages are rampant both in the public and private sectors. According to the US Chamber and the North Carolina Office of Human Resources, COVID caused a significant disruption in America’s labor force; in 2021, more than 47 million workers left their jobs, and in North Carolina, at least 20 state departments, offices, and boards had the highest number of vacant positions in five years.

The residual effects of the pandemic felt nationally and at the state level reverberate to counties. According to data from the University of North Carolina School of Government (UNC SOG) Recruitment and Retention survey, 71% of counties that responded stated they had higher turnover rates in 2022 compared to the previous two years, and 78% of counties stated they experienced more unfilled budgeted positions than before COVID.

“North Carolina counties are facing particular workforce challenges, but there is a wealth of opportunities for counties to improve employee recruitment and retention,” said Leisha DeHart-Davis, professor of Public Administration and Government at the University of North Carolina School of Government.

According to data from the UNC SOG survey, the most common challenges to recruitment and retention are candidate pool, pay, local government competition, private-sector competition, and burnout. As one county representative commented on the difficulty of competing with other local governments stating, “local governments compete with one another, and it is challenging when we update our Classification and Pay Plan to be competitive with our neighbors, and then they update theirs, so we are behind again. It is a constant battle.”

In addition to these more general recruitment and retention obstacles, several county departments face additional hurdles in hiring related to their fields of work. The most difficult departments to hire for are Sheriffs, Water/Sewer, Planning & Development, Finance, and Sanitation, according to the School of Government survey.

A few of the workforce concerns are familiar and are out of the county’s control, such as local government and private sector competition. Still, some more abstract factors, such as employee wellness and workplace climate, are manageable.

Interestingly, when you rank the top four most influential factors to local government employees regarding turnover intention according to the UNC SOG survey, the order is burnout, inclusion, communications, and pay satisfaction. Pay satisfaction ranks last, and burnout is first; and this is a surprising and insightful hint that pay isn’t everything to employees, and counties are taking note.

The workforce challenges counties face force them to look internally to improve their workplaces and begin rethinking employee wellness. Some counties are now implementing strategies such as onsite gyms, employee assistance program counseling sessions, and wellness programs described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “a coordinated and comprehensive set of health promotion and protection strategies implemented at the worksite that includes programs, policies, benefits, and environmental supports.”

Local governments are among the many entities that COVID has transformed, shaking up how companies, organizations, and even families operate. However, these local governments are in a unique position to influence the norm.

“Government has a role to lead and set an example for other employers in the community, and family-friendly employment policies are very easy to implement while also boosting employee morale, which is something we in government get a bad rap for,” said Alamance County Manager Heidi York.

For example, Cabarrus County is implementing innovative family-friendly strategies and has established a public-private partnership to increase employee wellness by providing support to help solve the childcare crisis caused by the pandemic. Cabarrus County partnered with Family Forward NC, an innovative initiative to improve children’s health and well-being and keep North Carolina’s workplaces competitive.

Childcare is essential to employees, and it affects their workplace decisions. According to an Econofact national survey, “almost 20% of working parents had to leave work or reduce their work hours solely due to a lack of childcare and only 30% of all working parents had any form of backup childcare.” Additionally, the Center for American Progress states that 44% of all North Carolina residents live in a childcare desert; unfortunately, Cabarrus County is no different. However, what is different is how they handled it.

The Cabarrus County Early Childhood Task Force Advisory Board understood the need for novel solutions. It recommended that the board of county commissioners use $225,000 from its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funds to establish the Lockhart Child Development Center with All Saints Episcopal Church to support full-time county employees and the local community. The board of county commissioners allocated an additional $375,000 to subsidize the first year of tuition for employees and established it as a reoccurring annual expense of $275,000.

“We’re hoping others will see what we have done and model it. During this childcare crisis, it is important to think about innovative solutions to childcare accessibility and affordability,” says Carla Brown, Cabarrus County’s Early Childhood Education Coordinator.

The Lockhart Child Development Center in Cabarrus County

The Lockhart Child Development Center is running smoothly in its second year of operation, and county employees and community members are pleased with its service. According to a 2022 Cabarrus County survey for families enrolled in Lockhart Childcare Center, parents rated their overall satisfaction with the county’s childcare benefit at a 4.71/5.00.

Janiece Lamberth, a Cabarrus County Social Worker and parent, commented on the benefits and opportunities the Lockhart Childcare Center provides for her family stating that, “Having this opportunity for childcare assistance has been greatly beneficial for my family. The percentage of our family income spent on childcare has allowed us to have additional money to invest in our daughter’s future as well as involve her in extracurricular activities to help her develop socially. Knowing that we have safe and reliable childcare puts me at ease and gives me more time to focus on being both physically and mentally present and productive at my job. Coming from a different state, and in my field of social work, there haven’t been many opportunities where there is employment that takes on some of the load of childcare. So again, we will continue to be grateful for this service that is provided to Cabarrus County employees and plan on utilizing it to its fullest extent.”

Cabarrus County understood what their employees needed to be successful and want to stay. Right now, it is an employee-controlled market, and counties need to examine their employment practices and listen to what employees need. “Employees will tell you what they want in order to stick around, and it is probably not different from what potential candidates are looking for,” said Professor DeHart-Davis.

To increase employee recruitment and retention, she recommends counties evolve their practices, pursue a comprehensive strategy, and identify areas that can be expanded or strengthened, like wellness, insurance, flexible work, and pay. Some areas of employment norms are changing, reflected in a county survey response which stated, “a flexible work schedule would help in recruitment and retention, but a flexible schedule is not welcomed in our county.” Factors like this affect workplace climate, which is critical to employee wellness and can sometimes be overlooked by local governments.

Some of the most used strategies counties implement to develop their workplace climate from the UNC SOG Recruitment and Retention survey are employee recognition programs, supervisory training, improved communications, and team building.

According to the global analytics firm Gallup, employees who strongly agree that their employer cares about their overall well-being, in comparison to other employees, are:

  • 69% less likely to actively search for a new job
  • 71% less likely to report experiencing a lot of burnout
  • Five times more likely to strongly advocate for their company as a place to work and to strongly agree they trust the leadership of their organization
  • Three times more likely to be engaged at work
  • 36% more likely to be thriving in their overall lives

Counties face unique challenges and must think outside the box to address employee recruitment and retention after COVID. However, there isn’t just one
remedy to solve counties’ workforce issues; it will require a comprehensive plan, creativity, and flexibility. North Carolina counties have a unique opportunity to
transform the state much like Cabarrus County has done with resources like CARES Act funding; all they need are the right people in place to make it happen.

Simply said, the better North Carolina counties take care of their employees, the better counties can care for residents, improving all 100 counties.

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