Local governments must be willing to change their hiring model if they want to continue to serve the residents of their communities, not only for today, but for the future as well.
By Kevin A. Richardson

State and local governments work daily to complete to meet the needs of their communities. However, they often do this without their entire employee staff available due to vacancies, retirements or individuals just leaving to find better pay for their work. This is true of trade industries where compensation is either competitive with or outmatches local government. Local governments should invest in building apprenticeship programs around the trade skills required to recruit, hire and retain employees in their workforce. Additionally, municipalities across the nation have difficulty finding and filling their vacancies for areas like commercially licensed drivers (CDL operators), water/wastewater plant operators, water distribution operators, welders, carpenters and many others.

Growing Concern
For example, according to the American Trucking Association (ATA): “By the end of 2018, an estimated 60,000 truck drivers (CDL operators) were needed on the road. This as the industry is responsible for moving more than 70 percent of all freight in the nation (Genovese, 2021). In local government, CDL operators are responsible for providing trash collection services, driving equipment to and from any worksite, and operating buses for both the school system and public transit, among many other things.” According to the WesTech Engineering Company, the water/wastewater and water distribution industries are estimated to lose more than 4,500 experienced workers by the end of 2021. Data USA.io reported in 2019 that there were only 99,700 licensed operators (Datausa.io, 2021).

Additionally, COVID-19 has caused some to rethink if they want to remain in the CDL industry for many reasons. The industry is on course to lose an additional 27,550 plant operators by 2031 (WesTech Engineering , 2020).

Failure to fill these positions means that services are delayed in some cases. Services such as trash collection, transit services, water and sewer distribution require the operator to have a CDL to perform the service. Water/wastewater operators require a separate license to work on the plant site and requirements for the different licenses vary by state (AWWA.org, 2021). Not maintaining enough operators in this field puts the staffing of the plants at risk, which is considered critical infrastructure across the nation (CISA.gov, 2021).

The Right Amount of Skills
On the surface, the simple answer to this issue would be recruiting and hiring more people. However, the problem is not that simple. Both private companies and the public sector have struggled over the past couple of years to fill vacancies for various reasons. Employers must understand that these positions are not office positions and therefore require a different method of evaluation. These individuals received a certification in their field, meaning they learned how to perform a specific task. Most trade workers have obtained either a high school diploma or a general education equivalent (GED), while most on the hiring panel have some type of degree, so their level of communication may be different. This difference makes it harder to determine if the individual has the right amount of skills, knowledge and abilities that the employer may desire in the public sector due to the physical work required. Therefore, organizations are forced to rely on the candidate to answer a series of questions about the work needed and the candidate’s ability to articulate their experiences to meet the organizations’ requirements for the position.

Additionally, we have to recognize the role that race, crime and education play in hindering the progression of minorities in not only trade industries overall, but also in the public sector currently. This is critical as despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, along with other various laws, minorities still have higher rates of both crime and unemployment and lower educational attainment rates. This trio of issues can be part of the cause for localities having unfilled vacancies as they effectively shrink the candidate pool for the organization to pick from. There could be thousands of previously incarcerated people who have gained trade-related skillsets, such as woodworking, carpentry, welding, and mechanics—all that are currently available to the job market; however, they are not given the opportunity to display their skills.

Rethinking the Way We Hire Trades
Currently, a local government hires people for the trades as they would someone they need to work in an office. This means that when local governments have vacancies to fill, they post an advertisement on their website. Additionally, they will post their ad on other major job sites such as Indeed.com, Monster.com, Linkedin.com and CareerBuilder.com. The organization’s HR Department will also post the advertisement on any social media sites on which the organization maintains accounts, such as Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook. Next, HR will wait for people to apply for the position to be screened and selected for an interview with the Hiring Manager. Then, during the interview, a series of 10 to 15 questions are asked by a panel of people representing HR and the gaining department.

Provided that the candidate could articulate their answers to please the board, they are selected for the vacant position. The process does not account for any pay negotiation, background check, DMV history check (as they may have to drive a government vehicle) or drug screening. This is not a conductive recruitment process for anyone working in trade-related fields. People who work in the trades tend to be more “hands-on” type people. Therefore, their interview should be in line with that understanding. A CDL operator would display their stated skills by driving one of the organizations’ vehicles. If the candidate is a welder, they will demonstrate that they can adequately weld something based on the employer’s requirements as part of their interview. Interviewing in this manner would allow the organization (department with the vacancy) to properly assess the candidate’s skills, knowledge and abilities before hiring them. The apprenticeship model is something that has long been a practice in the private sector in areas like ship builders and other trade unions. Apprenticeships can take many forms and vary in length of time with the result still being the same. Training the unskilled to become a certified skilled in a certain area.

Changing the Model
The model as we advance needs to be something different from what has been presented as a “one size fits all” approach to hiring. Moving forward, local governments should set up apprenticeship programs to recruit and hire trade workers. Setting up an apprenticeship program would mean that it would have to be registered with the state and federal governments to be tracked and documented. The benefits of starting an apprenticeship program are:

• It would allow the organization to canvas the pool of “unskilled” workers looking for ways to gain a lifelong skillset.

• Workers can start as young as 16, depending on the job. People wanting to be CDL operators would have to wait until they are 18 or 21, depending on what they want to do with the license.

• Local governments would have the ability to “groom” the person into the type of employee that would fit into the organization in the apprentice program.

• Lower pay and benefit-cost as these individuals would be starting at the bottom in the program as “unskilled” labor.

• The organization would be training a whole new workforce who would work for years beyond the apprenticeship itself.

The successful apprentice would be instilled with a sense of loyalty to the organization. It gave them a skillset and opportunity to work for more money than previously making as unskilled labor.
Local governments could partner with a local technical or community college or pull internal resources together for the endeavor. A task force could separately address each field’s needs. This would bring together senior management, human resources and the departments that have the vacancies to work on the program. This task force would evaluate how long the program runs, pay, benefits, and screen and assess candidates for the program. After the duration of the program, the successful candidate would be offered full-time employment with the organization, along with a pay increase.

Local governments must be willing to change their hiring model if they want to continue to serve the residents of their communities, not only for today, but for the future as well. Failure to adopt to the challenges of today will lead to only more vacancies and services not being delivered on time. And this is unacceptable in the profession that we serve. | WA

Kevin A. Richardson is Public Works Manager for the City of Rock Hill, SC. He is a retired Marine, whose previous local government experience includes serving as the Assistant Superintendent of Waste Collections for the City of Virginia Beach from 2017 to March 2021 where the program was originally tested. Additionally, he holds an Associate of Arts Degree in General Studies from American Military University, a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Leadership Studies with focus in Government and Public Policy from Regent University, and a Master of Arts in Public Administration with focus in Urban Municipal Governance from Norwich University. He can be reached at (803) 325-2681 or e-mail [email protected].

AWWA.org. (2021, July). Retrieved from AWWA.org: www.awwa.org/Professional-Development/Operators
CISA.gov. (2021, July). Retrieved from CISA.gov: www.cisa.gov/water-and-wastewater-systems-sector#:~:text=There%20are%20approximately%20153%2C000%20public%20drinking%20water%20systems,owned%20wastewater%20treatment%20systems%20in%20the%20United%20States.
Datausa.io. (2021, July). Retrieved from https://datausa.io/profile/soc/water-wastewater-treatment-plant-system-operators
Genovese, D. (2021, April 21). Fox Business. Retrieved from Fox Business.com: www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/truck-drivers-shortage-2021
Richardson, K. A. (2019, April). Think Like my Boss. Virginia Beach, VA, US.
WesTech Engineering. (2020, November 3). WesTech-inc.com. Retrieved from www.westech-inc.com/blog-commerical-industry/shrinking-pool-water-and-wastewater-plant-operators-impacts-stability.