With 85 vacant positions, City of Lawrence continues to see impact of ‘great resignation’ and tight labor market

photo by: Sylas May

Coming out of a pandemic that disrupted the personal and work lives of many, City of Lawrence officials say they are continuing to see the effects of the so-called “great resignation,” with 85 city positions currently sitting vacant.

Director of Human Resources Megan Dodge, who herself has been in her position less than a year, said that the city’s workforce has not escaped national trends that began during the pandemic, when employers saw high resignation numbers as many people changed jobs. Dodge said that at one point this year the city had more than 100 open positions, and that the job market is still making it difficult to hire new workers.

“Everyone has gone through a really difficult two years,” Dodge said. “We’re experiencing the great resignation. Every employer is having a hard time hiring and recruiting people.”

Nationwide, 4.53 million workers quit their jobs in March 2022, beating the previous recent high of 4.51 million in November 2021, according to survey data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. For April, the most recent data available, 4.4 million workers quit their jobs. The unemployment rate remains low, coming in at 3.6% nationally and 2.3% in Kansas.

The city’s open positions span various departments, including the city manager’s office, parks and recreation, municipal services and operations, planning and development, finance, city attorney, police, and fire and medical. A handful of positions have multiple vacancies, including openings for four street maintenance operators, seven solid waste loaders, and 14 police officers. Dodge said the city only recruits for a portion of the positions, and currently has 21 positions — some of which have multiple openings — active on the city’s jobs website, lawrenceks.org/jobs.

Dodge did not immediately have data regarding the numbers of applications the city was currently receiving in comparison to previous levels, but the current level of vacancies significantly exceeds what the city experienced in recent years. In September 2021, the city reported that it had more than 60 openings, which at that time was more than twice the number of openings the city usually had.

The number of vacancies has ebbed and flowed since then; Dodge said it was 108 openings when she first began her position in February, and was down to 76 in April. The city’s annual turnover rate also increased, going from 14% in 2020 to 17% in 2021; however, that number appears to be on the decline, with the rate for the past rolling year — including the last half of 2021 and the first half of 2022 — now at 15%.

While Dodge said the turnover rate is pretty typical, turnover and the number of vacant positions have had some tangible effects for city staff. The city has been working on a long-term project to change over its software system, and the City Commission recently approved using $470,000 from the project’s contingency funds to pay for an outside project manager and other costs “to help address staffing and resource gaps created by a variety of unforeseen circumstances,” according to a city staff memo. That includes “staff turnover in leadership and key positions,” and the memo notes that since the beginning of the project, the city has new directors in five departments, lost its finance lead on the project with no notice, and lost a human resources generalist and budget and strategic initiatives administrator also working on the project. An applications administrator who has been working on the project is also preparing to leave.

Dodge said the additional resources needed to manage that project were a concrete example of how staffing has affected city operations. She said she thinks the issue is one all government organizations are probably dealing with right now.

“Employees have had to fill in those gaps,” Dodge said. “I don’t have data around that, but I think people are feeling that crunch, to be honest. Our employees work really hard every day, and it’s a really rewarding field, but it’s challenging too.”

Porter Arneill, who has been with the city since 2015 and serves as a spokesperson as well as director of arts, noted that the city saw several department directors retire during the pandemic. Arneill worked with city staff and others in the community on a team that responded to the pandemic, and he said everyone was under a lot of stress, especially certain department heads, and he imagines the pandemic may have had an influence on that. He said that those effects continued to be felt, and that people deserved credit for their efforts.

“So many people are so impacted by all this, and we’re certainly all still healing from all of it,” Arneill said. “I just give kudos to so many people. There has been turnover, there have been vacancies, but a lot of people for quite a while now have really stepped up and handled those gaps and continue doing so.”

Dodge said resignations have included both people changing jobs and retiring, and that at this point about half of the city’s employees have been with the city for 10 years or less. When it comes to filling vacancies and retaining workers, Dodge said the city has been focusing on improving pay, work culture and work structure, all of which play into the city’s strategic plan commitment of having an “engaged and empowered” workforce.

In terms of pay, Dodge said that means making sure city wages are market competitive, with other government agencies and even the private sector. Following a market study, city management proposed and the City Commission approved the first installment of a two-year plan to increase wages last year. As part of the budget process last summer, a total of $5 million for employee raises was approved for this year, and it’s expected the second installment for those wage increases will be included in the city manager’s recommended budget for 2023.

When it comes to work culture, Dodge said that anecdotally, the pandemic has caused people to refocus, with many looking for more balance and fulfillment at work. She said the city has been working so that a job “adds value” rather than takes over an employee’s life. There have also been structural changes, and she said for positions where it’s possible, the city offers a hybrid schedule, where employees work part of the time from home and part of the time from the office.

“So it’s really like a juncture point of us knowing we’re not going back to pre-pandemic; it’s not going to look like 2019 ever again,” Dodge said. “This is an opportunity for us to really reset what it’s like to work today and what it’s like to be a city employee.”


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