By Eric S. Berman, MSA, CPA, CGMA and Dr. Bradford Rockabrand CPA, CIA, MBA, Partners, Eide Bailly, LLP
Many of the articles written about the shortage of qualified workers in state and local government have missed an area that should be a concern to public sector leaders as well as taxpayers. I’m referring to the talent gap in fiscal offices nationwide. The reasons for this are many, but here are a few of the outstanding ones:
The lack of consistent finance-focused public administration, governmental accounting, and governmental auditing instruction at institutions of higher education.
As in other job functions, more people are retiring, or are eligible to retire, from the workforce than are entering the workforce.
There are fewer graduates in accounting in general due to the perception of some students of a lack of work-life balance.
Even as the public sector is raising pay levels for many positions, the same is true in the private sector and it’s seemingly impossible to catch up.
As many say, problems have solutions, conditions do not. We believe this is a problem that can be solved, but it will not be easy and certainly, the solutions are not immediate fixes. Still, there are some steps that can be taken to address this issue. Here are four: Government Executives Need to Focus on Skills Not Credentials Yes, there are letters after names of many finance officers that refer to degrees and c redentials. But with declining enrollments in institutions of higher education and the changing needs of government, more attention must be paid to the skills those jobs require. We note that in some states, finance officers have specific requirements referencing degrees and credentials that may need to be updated for tomorrow’s skills. Government must become data-driven to make better decisions. To do so, it is important to recognize that the youngest members of the workforce are digital natives and may have the necessary capacity but not the degrees. As a result, it is time to bridge the gap between the exiting workforce and those who thrive on data and technology. Exhibit number 1. On January 18, Governor Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania eliminated the requirement of a four-year degree for 92% of state government jobs. Executives who are hiring need to look for talent in high schools, community colleges and other nontraditional places where skills are plentiful. In addition, governments, like much of the working world, do a very poor job of succession planning. In a recent review of a well-known government human resources recruiting website, many of the postings were for retiring finance professionals. Only one of the 23 positions indicated “Finance Director in waiting”. As a result, too little time is spent mentoring those who do choose a government job. New hires are left to their own devices once a leader departs and often suffer a similar fate, thereby perpetuating this systemic issue. Expand Opportunities for Additional Knowledge
Instead of requiring people to use for-pay institutions to gain necessary information, why not expand on-site or on-line, on-demand professional development, or assistance in receiving additional skills? How about other important benefits such as stress management? On-site daycare and fitness centers would also be beneficial. It is inexpensive to survey your employees and potential employees as to what they desire and then prioritize based on available funds. Create Partnerships with Nontraditional Sources of Employees. If governments need to hire based on skills, then look where the skills are. They may not be at four-year (or more) institutions. As introduced, high schools could be a source at least to get students interested in public service. Community colleges, technical schools, returning veterans, retirees, homemakers all could be sources of skilled labor. State governments could also work with public institutions to refine curriculums for this reality of converting to skills assessment, rather than teaching for exams. Create Incentives to Stay in Public Service Some governments such as the City of Boston have long had a residency requirement for city workers. However, most public sector (and private sector) positions could not afford to live within the city due to high housing costs. The city and the public school system have temporarily lifted those requirements while negotiations are ongoing with trade unions. With scarcity of new hires, why not make those changes permanent? Further, even for cities that do not have residency requirements of any kind (and those restrictions have been falling by the wayside in recent years) why not subsidize transit for all workers, assuming the worker does not work remotely? Ridership would increase, congestion would decrease, and workers would return to offices that may be partially vacant, benefitting local businesses. These and many other ideas are just the start of a conversation. None are the holy grail. But we have to start somewhere. We hear the same issues in nearly every government executive we talk to. Maybe it is time to solve the problems. The contents of this guest column reflect those of the authors and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc