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Understanding Understaffing

In the many performance audits we read each year, a common recurring problem is staff capacity. While this isn’t a new issue, we're confident that it will get increasing attention in coming months – an outgrowth of the nearly universal problem that state and local government entities currently have with escalating turnover and declining job applications (two topics we’ve recently written about for Route Fifty).


Understaffing is one frequently cited reason for tardy reports or missed deadlines. Not surprisingly, in the last couple of years, it has also been a significant factor in audits about overtime. In addition, inexperienced or absent staff can be cited as the reason for financial errors.


Since understaffing is so often the cause of a host of problems, we jumped at the chance to read a recent audit that focused specifically on this issue -- not just its ramifications. This document, which we think is useful for state and local agency leaders around the country -- and their HR offices -- was produced by the city auditor's office in Atlanta, in a February 2022 performance audit about “Facilities Management Staffing and Scheduling” in Atlanta’s Department of Aviation.


While a lack of attention to staffing can have all kinds of negative effects, the problems in this audit are particularly significant since, as the auditors wrote, "Adequate staffing and scheduling in the Facilities Management division is vital to airport operations and safety.”


The Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, owned by the City of Atlanta, is one of the world’s busiest. One worrisome piece of data: 17% of technical staff did not have required licenses or certifications.


Many of the findings – and recommendations -- in the audit related to data systems that were improving, but were still diffuse, sometimes paper-based and often inconsistently used. Close to 17% of data fields were blank and only 65% of work orders included start dates and finish dates.


While noting the difficulties of comparing airports, due to different methods of measurement and the issues that come with self-reported statistics, the audit noted that Atlanta had a passenger to staff ratio “four times higher than the median”, based on six large airports that auditors contacted for comparison.


The data problems hampered management’s ability to make decisions about staff or schedules. “Facilities Management’s workload information is incomplete and inaccurate,” auditors wrote. The result? “Division management cannot analyze and determine resource needs.”


Another problem was the absence of a salary and compensation study to provide documented evidence that salaries were uncompetitive with the market, a problem that hobbles the division’s efforts to fill positions. “Lack of competitive salaries has affected the department’s ability to hire technical staff, such as electricians,” auditors wrote. In fact, 30% of the electrician positions in February 2021 were vacant.



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