Filling vacancies at city hall is tough job

In tight US labor market, public sector gets creative in itsefforts to compete with private firms for workers.

In these days of a tourniquet-tight labor market, personnel recruiters have one of the hardest jobs around. But if you're trying to find workers to fill posts at city hall, your job just got tougher.

The public sector has long been at a competitive disadvantage with private employers, whose workers traditionally are paid more and enjoy more perquisites. But now, with the competition so fierce that even McDonald's offers signing bonuses for new hires, some states, cities, and counties are being compelled to find more creative ways to recruit and retain workers.

Here in Denver, where the jobless rate hovers at about 3 percent and talented workers are at a premium, the city recently decided to reward exemplary workers with a paid day off. Moreover, it's aiming to compete better with the private sector by offering two other perks: signing bonuses of as much as $1,000, and help with relocation expenses up to $2,500.

Such measures are apt to become more commonplace as employers fish for applicants from a shrinking pool.

"Right now, the job market absolutely favors the employee almost across the board," says Cindy Fukami, a University of Denver business professor who teaches human resources. "This is true all over the US, but it's particularly true in Denver. It's a tough place to recruit now. New jobs are being created, and the supply of labor hasn't caught up with the demand."

No wiggle room

While private-sector employers generally have the financial wiggle room to keep key employees satisfied, government employers don't.

"You're constrained in a lot of ways in the public sector that you aren't in the private sector," Ms. Fukami says. Bonuses and pay-for-performance raises are limited or nonexistent in the public sector. And civil-service rules require new hires to come in at the bottom of the pay scale and work their way up.

As a result, Denver's paid day off is intended to be "a pat on the back" to hard-working employees, says Dani Brown, a compensation supervisor for the city, which employs about 14,000 people. "We came up with this as a way of rewarding and encouraging outstanding performance. It's difficult because we don't have the money that some private companies do to give bonuses or free trips."

The State of Colorado, which faces the same staffing challenges as the city, is also trying to expand the boundaries of public-sector constraints. This year, the state will begin a new program allowing managers to award "peak-performance" bonuses to stellar employees.

"We want to make state employees feel they have worth," says Linda Schneider, a personnel specialist with the state's Human Resources Division.

That's become especially important in fields where there's a crunch for candidates - notably, information technology and skilled labor. In the private sector, such workers can almost name their price - making it that much harder for government employers to compete.

Staffing shortages in information technology, in fact, were the driving force behind Denver's day-off policy, says Ms. Brown. "We found that information-technology people - the computer-guru types - tend not to stick with a company very long. They're after a challenge, and feel they're 'moldy' after a couple of years, so they move on."

To keep these workers from slipping away, some private companies hire concierges to attend to employee errands - from dropping off the dry-cleaning to walking the dog. The city couldn't go that far, says Brown, but it became clear that something extra was in order. For equity reasons, Denver had to offer the same perk to all city workers.

As businesses nationwide scramble to become Y2K compliant, computer programmers and analysts are hitting peak demand everywhere, notes Brown. And because computer technology evolves so rapidly, there aren't enough candidates conversant in the latest developments to fill job openings.

Electricians and plumbers are also in short supply around the West, thanks to booming construction. With plenty of contract work to keep them busy, most aren't interested in taking lower-paying positions in the public sector.

Calling all electricians

That's prompted the city to try more aggressive recruitment tactics lately - such as mailing job notices to all licensed electricians in the state, and posting ads on the Internet for computer specialists,

"We have our own Web page, and we've instituted an online application process," says Steve Adkison, recruitment supervisor for the city. "One of the things we're trying to do is make our [hiring] process quicker and more streamlined. The private sector has a lot more flexibility to hire someone on the spot."

Job security counts

The city also is busy playing up its strengths to potential employees. "We are stable. Employees don't have to worry about downsizing," says Brown, ticking off the advantages of public employment. "The odds of us closing our doors and moving overseas are minimal. And the benefits package is good."

For many employees, job security alone is enough of a draw to compensate for lower pay, says Jeffrey Zax, an economics professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "Steady work can be very appealing. After all the publicity about downsizing, people still have fears about job security."

Mr. Zax also points out that higher pay and bonuses in the private sector tend to come with a personal price tag: Often, what employees gain in salary, they lose in terms of quality of life.

"These workers are giving up something to get this [high salary]," he says. "There's no point in viewing a perk such as having a concierge as a gift. People could shop for themselves if they were working 40 hours a week, instead of 55."

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