Public sector workers keep the wheels turning in communities. From education to healthcare, safety to sustainability, protecting rights and liberties, or enabling economic development, they play a huge role in shaping outcomes for people, places and firms. Yet many regions are having trouble in finding new ways to attract them.
The unsung heroes
During the COVID-19 pandemic, while healthcare professionals saved lives, other public sector workers also performed heroics to keep children learning and support the elderly and find creative solutions to economic challenges and unemployment spikes both locally and nationally.
Yet growing shortages in the public service pose a critical risk to welfare. Teacher shortages, for example, harm trust in schools, communities, and student achievement, and are becoming particularly acute in deprived and rural areas. Shortages of bus and train drivers disrupt access to education and jobs. Patchy public services due to staffing gaps can erode trust in government, harm territories’ appeal, and become a vicious cycle by deterring new workers from joining overstretched public services.
Gaps where they are needed most
Shortages mainly affect rural and poorer regions, undermining outcomes and worsening geographic inequalities. While gaps in the health and education receive the most attention, in many areas they also extend to various professions including IT experts, food and safety inspectors, and administrative roles.
In Sweden and Norway, shortages of IT specialists and healthcare professionals are most acute in the less populated northern areas. In Nunavut, a northern Canadian territory, up to 38% of public administration positions and half of the health department ones are vacant. And in the US, rural areas account for nearly two-thirds of the areas with primary care health professional shortages.
Shortages also concern deprived urban places, like the Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest department, located near Paris, where there are too few judges, police officers, health professionals, and teachers.
The laws of attraction
So, what can be done? OECD work shows that it’s not just about offering great jobs and career opportunities; it’s about creating good places to work. The very same job can either be a dream or a dud depending on its location. Beyond the pay cheque, various place-related factors come into play, including housing affordability, transportation, digital infrastructure, cultural and recreational amenities, social cohesion, a clean environment… and access to public services.
Strategies need to be tailored to the types of workers required. Increasingly footloose and affluent skilled workers tend to be heavily influenced by the availability of amenities and social policies, while younger professionals prioritise connectivity, and older ones cultural amenities. Equally important is to consider the regional context: Is housing affordable? Are there employment opportunities for spouses? Is high-speed internet accessible?
It’s not just about getting people in the door, it’s about retaining them. In particular, soft-landing schemes are key, since people’s first experience of a place plays a significant role in determining longer- term stays and their willingness to spread the word to others.
The very same job can either be a dream or a dud depending on its location.
Standing out from the crowd
Several governments recognise the potential of using quality-of-life factors to draw and retain public servants where needed. In Norway’s northernmost region, long-standing measures like tax cuts and student loan reductions to attract talents, especially in the public sector, have been in place for decades. Evaluations suggest their impact may be temporary, with loan reductions more effective than tax cuts. Notably, their effectiveness hinges on people’s awareness and visibility in national media. Policy makers are now turning to targeted measures to attract young workers and families with young children, including free kindergarten services.
In France, the government has announced the construction of housing reserved for public workers on land owned by the state and local authorities. At the local level, in the Eure department, innovative solutions to address the talent gap involve creating a one-stop shop to improve access to healthcare services for public servants and their families in underserved areas. Meanwhile the French Ministry of Armed Forces has implemented a family support plan that offers childcare services, addresses housing shortages, facilitates homeownership through loans, provides educational support for children, and supports spouses’ career mobility through collaborations with hospitals, local government services, and employment offices.
In the United States, states are tackling the talent gap by expanding remote work options, providing a remote option to nearly half of workers, a sharp increase from the pre-pandemic level of less than 5%. This shift to more flexible working will help staff balance work with caring duties and overcome challenges in public transport in remote areas. Public employers are also encouraging staff retention through homeownership programs. In Baltimore, for instance, 1 229 city employees have already benefited from grants provided by the “Live Near Your Work” programme. States are also diversifying their recruitment strategies by forming partnerships with unusual local collaborators, like Departments of Corrections, to hire people who were incarcerated, or refugee organisations.
Subnational governments are innovating and adjusting their approaches as they go. They have learned to move beyond the payslip towards more targeted approaches that emphasises the perks of the job, career prospects, community support and quality of life in the regions where these vital roles are located. These strategies that ensure that workers come – and stay – for the right reasons, keeping the wheels turning for years to come.