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June 13, 2019

Employment Trends Signal Fresh Opportunities in the Public Sector

By Dr. Stephen Neely, Assistant Professor, Public Administration


The quality and continuity of public service delivery depends on an educated, well-trained, and ethical public workforce. In the coming years, the accelerating pace of retirements among baby boomers at public agencies portends an expanding skills-deficit and a critical workforce need, both here in Florida and throughout the United States as a whole. However, for those with a strong public service motivation, these trends also mean fresh opportunities to step up and make a difference in a rewarding public sector career.

Public Sector Employment Trends

Over the next ten years, the widespread retirement of baby boomers is expected to result in critical workforce shortages across numerous sectors and segments of the American economy. The subsequent generation ('Generation X') is notably smaller, resulting in a shortage of well-trained and experienced workers commensurate to the anticipated workforce demand. These concerns have been especially pronounced in the case of the public sector (i.e. government agencies and nonprofit and non-governmental organizations), where workers tend to be substantially older, and where employment opportunities often require higher levels of education, training, and certification. A Congressional Research Service study conducted in 2014 found that employees in the public sector were notably older, on average, than their private sector counterparts, with nearly 52% of public sector employees being between the ages of 45 and 64 (as opposed to only 42% of all private sector employees).

A number of stakeholders have voiced significant concerns over the impact that these demographic trends may have on the human capital and institutional knowledge of public agencies, as well as their ability to maintain the continuity and quality of public service provision across all levels of government. For example, one expert notes that "if they aren’t ready, agencies risk permanently losing decades of expertise, eroding their ability to serve the public for years to come." The Government Accountability Office (GAO) itself has warned that these trends could result in a "mission-critical skills gap if not addressed." Others have described the trend as a "looming talent crisis," a "ticking time bomb in the federal workforce," and "the greatest public leadership transition in American history." To say the least, finding ways to successfully navigate this new terrain will be increasingly important for public service providers of all shapes and sizes.


However, for students and recent graduates of undergraduate and graduate programs in public management, there is opportunity amidst all of these concerns. Today, indicators of the "Silver Tsunami" (as some have dubbed this demographic transition) are already becoming evident across agencies and institutions at all levels of government. One recent survey of state and local governments highlighted an increase in retirements in recent years, and data from several sources show that an alarming number of government employees will be eligible to retire in the next 3-5 years. Some data suggests that as many as half of all senior-level managers at the state, local, and federal level will be due to retire, while others predict a substantial spike in public sector retirements over the next three years, with sustained trends persisting for five to ten years. The percentage of employees reaching eligibility for retirement over the next five years is expected to double in many federal agencies, with more than 40% of employees being eligible to retire from key agencies by 2023, including Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Environmental Protection (EPA), NASA, and the Department of Treasury (see Table 1).


These trends are being compounded in part by improvements in the American economy over recent years, as many eligible employees who postponed their retirement following the recession of 2007 are now beginning to exit the public workforce at a quicker pace. In light of these factors, recent employment projections predict a disproportionately high demand for public sector jobs (national, state, and local level) in the immediate- to near-term. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an increase of 788,700 state and local government jobs by the year 2026. Along with these traditional agency level positions, BLS also projects significant growth in a number of public service-related fields over the same period, including social assistance (+952,500), educational services (+506,500), civic organizations (+106,200), urban and regional planning (+36,000), and social and community service management (+26,500) to name a few (see Figure 1). Many state and local governments are already experiencing workplace shortages in critical areas, such as public finance/accounting, information technology/network administration, policing, engineering, assessors/inspectors, and public works (i.e. wastewater and water treatment operators).


These trends are particularly acute in the State of Florida, which the Pew Research Center suggests is one of the "grayest" states in America. The state’s aging population not only depletes the public workforce, but it also increases the demand for public services, requiring many public agencies to expand even further. Taken together, these trends are expected to cause significant growth in public sector jobs throughout the state over the next five years. Specifically, data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity projects that between 2018 and 2026, an astounding 60,632 local government jobs will need to be filled in the State of Florida, along with an additional 9,542 state government level jobs (see Figure 2).

Surfing the Silver Tsunami

While these trends may pose unique challenges for government agencies and public service providers, they also represent a unique opportunity for those who hope to make a difference while making a living. Studies have consistently shown that an increasing number of citizens have what researchers call "Public Service Motivation" – an intrinsic desire to engage in professional activities that serve the broader public good, as opposed to those pursued for purely private gain. This has been found to be especially true of millennials and post-millennials, who often express a desire to "give back" and "make a difference" through their professional careers. The strong public service motivation exhibited by these young people aligns well with the workforce demands discussed above, which translates into professional opportunities to serve the public good and "make a difference" in stable, productive career settings. Over the next five to ten years, this will include over 60,000 new positions in local government throughout the State of Florida, as well as 9,500 new state government positions. On top of these local workforce demands, between 20-40% of the federal workforce will be repopulated over this same period of time.

Here at the University of South Florida, we are working hard to develop programs and initiatives to help prepare young professionals for these opportunities, and to meet the state and nation’s evolving workforce needs. There are important steps that all public agencies and aspiring leaders can take as well. Here are a few thoughts to consider, proposed by Dr. Ronald Sanders, USF’s School of Public Affairs Director and Clinical Professor:

1. Manage Knowledge Transfer to Maintain Institutional Knowledge: Among the biggest risks posed to public agencies by the "Silver Tsunami" is the widespread loss of institutional knowledge that accompanies any large-scale employee turnover event. In order to ensure the effective continuity of public service delivery, public agencies and service providers can put proactive systems in place—such as internal mentorship programs and internship-to-employment pipelines—that ensure an effective transfer of skills and knowledge to the next generation of public servants.

2. Develop a Succession Strategy: Public organizations should take deliberate steps to ensure that their leadership and senior technical/professional ranks can be replenished—not just immediately but long term as well—with either internal or external candidates. That means identifying those who are eligible to retire and when, as well as those who may follow in their footsteps. And that also means determining the nature and extent of any "skills gaps" that those succession candidates may have and providing opportunities for them to close those gaps.

3. Foster Workplace Flexibility and Innovation: While millennials and post-millennials tend to exhibit high levels of public service motivation, these younger workers also have a demonstrated preference for more flexible and innovative workplace practices, like flexible work hours and telework, tuition assistance, continuing professional development opportunities, and shadowing and mentoring opportunities. While these may seem to conflict with the bureaucratic nature of public sector employment, there are unique and novel ways for public agencies to adopt these practices in an effort to attract and retain highly qualified employees with a desire to serve the greater good.

4. For Aspiring Public Servants, Take Advantage of the Opportunities: For those young professionals who aspire to make a difference, now is an excellent time to prepare yourselves to take advantage of opportunities. Public sector employment often requires higher levels of education along with specialized certifications. Today, the return on investment for these credentials is higher than ever, as public agencies and service providers are increasingly seeking highly qualified candidates to fill the emerging talent gap. Opportunities to advance your education, intern with a public agency, or be mentored by a seasoned professional will pay dividends in the future.

5. For Educational Institutions like USF’s School of Public Affairs: Those who are in the business of preparing professionals for careers in public service—whether that may be with a government agency, a nonprofit or non-governmental organization, a private contractor who serves the public interest, or all of the above—also have a responsibility to maximize employment opportunities for their graduates. That means establishing close ties with those organizations that may be hiring, helping them identify their employment needs, developing curricula that are responsive to those needs, and helping to connect students (via social media networks, job fairs, etc.) who have the potential to meet them.

6. For All Stakeholders, Build Relationships and Partnerships to Maximize Opportunities: All of those engaged in preparing individuals for public service, as well as those individuals themselves, should strive to build effective relationships and partnerships with one another. For example, academic institutions should participate in professional associations, such as the Florida League of Cities (FLC), the Florida City and County Management Association (FCCMA), and the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). The latter two also sponsor student chapters (we have one of each at USF) that can foster connections between those who want to serve and those who are doing the hiring. Those relationships—between public sector employers, public service students, and academic institutions like USF’s School of Public Affairs—can also provide valuable input regarding the skills necessary for a successful career, internship and placement opportunities, and access to cutting edge training. They can also help develop educational materials and build a pipeline of highly qualified professionals through opportunities such as internships and mentoring initiatives.

June 3, 2019

A Lesson of Recovery and Resilience Post-Disaster

By Dr. Robin Ersing, Associate Professor, Urban and Regional Planning

Every May, Floridians begin a ritual of dusting off and ramping up their disaster preparedness plans as we ready our families and property for hurricane season which extends from June through November. This year will mark the 15th anniversary of what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) described as the most destructive hurricane season in Florida history, with the biggest disaster-relief effort in U.S. history at that point. In 2004, Florida experienced an unprecedented hurricane season with four named storms making landfall in 44 days during August and September. Three of those hurricanes, (Charley, Frances, and Jeanne), left behind damages to the state totaling over $45 billion. Indeed, Hurricane Charley alone was measured on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale as a Category 4 storm.

Volusia County Encounters Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne

Florida is recognized as one of three "home-base sites" for immigrant farm laborers along with Texas and California. Across the state, a number of Florida counties provide agricultural work for seasonal and migrant laborers, including Volusia County. Volusia is an important agricultural area situated on the Atlantic coast of northeastern Florida. With a population approaching 500,000, its rich farming industry attracts a large concentration of migrant laborers who engage in field and orchard harvesting, food packing and sorting, and horticultural work. Certainly, the coastal location of the county increases the threat from a number of climatic factors, thus placing an already vulnerable farmworker population at considerable risk to coastal hazards. In 2004, the total damage caused to homes and businesses in Volusia County by hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne reached $560 million. Likewise, accumulated storm damage took a heavy toll on the agricultural industry in Volusia County thus impacting the livelihoods of its’ many migrant farm laborers.

Triple Jeopardy and Disaster Recovery: A Story of Resilience

Limited English Proficiency (LEP) populations have gradually gained attention in the hazards literature with particular attention given to Hispanics, Haitians, and Asians. Still, a gap remains with regard to Spanish-speaking migrant farm laborers and their families, including those with undocumented status. This vulnerable group is often a silent voice in community disaster planning. Data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey suggests that speaking Spanish at home and speaking English less than very well or not at all, correlates with a series of indicators linked to increased social vulnerability. Indicators include having less than a 12th grade education, being over age 60, living in poverty, and having a disability. These multiple factors negatively impact resilience. With this in mind, I set out to explore the issue of "triple jeopardy"—the intersection of gender, economics, and language—and community disaster resilience. Specifically, I studied the impact of the 2004 hurricane season on female migrant laborers speaking limited English and residing in Volusia County. This case study illustrates several key lessons for post-disaster recovery of this hidden and vulnerable population.

Starting from the Grassroots

In response to a series of three hurricanes that impacted the rural agricultural areas of Volusia County, Florida in 2004, a small group of women spontaneously organized, known as Alianza de Mujeres Activas (AMA) [Alliance of Active Women]. This grassroots group had strong ties to the migrant farm worker community, with members of their households engaged in this work. The primary mission of AMA was to bridge a gap by providing outreach and assistance to the LEP community which had been overlooked by the government sector of emergency management. Destruction of crops meant loss of employment; damage to housing left people needing shelter as well as food, clean water, and supplies for children such as diapers and formula.

As a call went out through social networks in the LEP community, people began to gather whatever items they could spare and an informal humanitarian distribution site was launched in someone’s front yard. Outreach teams of women delivered care packages into the impacted areas of the community and, while handing out supplies, also searched for those in need who had been passed-over by the traditional disaster serving organizations. AMA then initiated a second mission which involved developing a resource list of all existing social service agencies, volunteer and faith-based groups in order to link those in need with resources.

The work of AMA promoted a sense of unity within the community including building bonds of trust with outside assets. The result was a tangible collective resilience for a vulnerable and heretofore hidden population. Over time, AMA has continued to expand its capacity through volunteer efforts and partnerships with others entities. AMA members regularly participate in health fairs and media promotions through Univision and Telemundo television to educate the LEP community on disaster preparedness. The efforts of AMA, led by a group of determined women, have contributed to the creation of a bilingual volunteer community emergency response team (CERT), and the formation of El Grupo Comunitario de Respuesta a Desastres (Community Disaster Response Group). "El Grupo" now represents a broader mix of community members (e.g. male/female, bilingual, youth/adults) engaged in identifying and planning for the needs of the LEP and farm labor communities with emergency management leaders to promote resilience and post-disaster sustainability.

Components of Community Disaster Resilience

Grassroots organizing and mobilization skills support efforts for collective action through social networking and set the stage for collective efficacy. The women of AMA were able to quickly identify and mobilize available resources to meet immediate needs for health and safety. The impetus of AMA was to provide outreach and assistance to the LEP community which had been overlooked by the government sector of emergency management. These women relied on close social ties within their migrant community to offer mutual support to those in need. Damage from the hurricane resulted in the need for safe shelter, unspoiled food, clean water, and supplies for children such as diapers and formula. The women described their work in gathering donations from fellow members of the migrant community in the form of household items that could be salvaged and distributed to those in need. Teams of women organized the donated goods into care packages, which were delivered to impacted areas of the community. The outreach task was twofold, as those handing out supplies also searched for those in need who had been passed-over by the traditional disaster serving organizations.

While much of the literature on disaster resilience mentions the importance of identifying local assets, creating networks through social capital, and working together to enhance collective efficacy. Another component of community resiliency is "adaptive capacity." In order to be adaptive, you have to be able to know what your assets are, how you're going to use those assets, and then what it is that you're going to put into place to be able to make a difference so that you come through the disaster stronger and in a better place. Adaptive capacity is really about asking, how am I able to change, what strengths do I have going for me, and what strengths can I find within my community?

The ability for a community to work together before, during, and after a traumatic event like a hurricane is important because government can no longer provide all the services an impacted area might need. Indeed, this was made apparent in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, Texas with flooding from rainfall. FEMA repeatedly asked people in Texas to help each other out before government officials could get there. The reality is that FEMA cannot do disaster response and recovery alone. These kinds of massive disasters require collective effort. A new breed of community responders—volunteer citizen responders—are needed to support government efforts. This includes you, me, the people next door to us, across the street from us, anyone that can come out to lend a hand, neighbor helping neighbor. We have to rely on each other to be able to help in rescue and recovery efforts. Everyone has something that they can give.

Returning to Volusia County, we found an impoverished community of female immigrant farm laborers who came together to help each other in 2004 after a series of hurricanes rattled the area. These women demonstrated resilience through adaptive capacity as they rallied together to help each other recover through the identification and redistribution of existing assets and resources. Fifteen years later, we prepare our communities in that spirit of resilience.

May 23, 2019

"Government Outsourcing and Organizational Performance: The Employee Perspective"

By Dr. Shinwoo Lee, Assistant Professor, Public Administration

Usually, city or county services are provided by city and county employees. Police officers, librarians, kindergarten teachers, and building inspectors, for example, work for municipal governments to provide services to residents.


But sometimes local governments decide that they would rather hire a private company to perform municipal services. If you live in Hillsborough County, your garbage is picked up by a private contractor paid with your tax dollars. The Hillsborough County School Board is considering outsourcing custodial work to private contractors. With outsourcing becoming increasingly common, an understanding of its role in local government and management becomes an important research task.

Outsourcing in the public sector has been extensively used as an important policy tool employed in the name of greater efficiency and a decided preference for business-like practices. Government outsourcing has soared over the last few decades under the New Public Management (NPM) movement that had swept the globe, but its origination goes back to the American Revolutionary War: the U.S. Army outsourced supplies needed in the war. From both practical and scholarly perspectives, proponents of market-oriented reforms—in particular, government outsourcing—postulate that these market-oriented reforms will improve public organizations’ performance through increasing administrative efficiency and effectiveness. While most of the scholarly interest has been outward on these economic values—efficiency and effectiveness—in evaluating the outcomes of government outsourcing, government personnel’s perspective on the effects of outsourcing on organizational performance has been rarely evaluated. This renders fractional explanations of outsourcing outcomes.

Understanding how employees evaluate the impact of organizational performance is meaningful. As one of the key public sector constituents, government employees have different interests, thoughts, and values that set them apart from other constituents. In particular, public employees have witnessed the continued expansion of government outsourcing for several decades as an alternative tool for delivering public services, and therefore, hold certain expectations about the consequences of outsourcing—both good and bad—for themselves and their organization. What employees think and how they feel about their organization, its policies, and its leaders influence their motivation, behavior, and ultimately their performance. Therefore, to explore how government outsourcing influences employee perceptions and attitudes can foster a broader understanding of how this practice affects public organizations.

A review of the academic and professional literature reveals two contrasting effects of government outsourcing: government outsourcing can have both positive and negative changes in organizational contexts and conditions that will eventually affect organizational performance. As one of the potential positive changes, government outsourcing can bring the expertise both private and nonprofits organizations hold, and public agencies can utilize their expertise and experience in providing public services through outsourcing with these organizations. Government outsourcing can also offer learning opportunities to gain new knowledge and ideas to government officials. Next, it can also reduce red tape for employees to follow: the NPM movement highlights streamlining internal administrative and procurement processes in fostering efficiency and effectiveness, while leaving more discretion for employees in managing partnerships with contractors to agencies. Finally, given that contractors typically put a priority on customer satisfaction and responsiveness to the customer needs, government employees can witness increasing responsiveness of public services and programs if public agencies outsource those services and programs.

On the other hand, there exists a list of potential negative changes that government outsourcing may bring about to public organizations and employees. First, government outsourcing involves a potential issue of agency costs. Given the prevalent information asymmetry between a principal (public agencies) and an agent (contractors), the principal cannot always determine if poor results are a function of the agent’s behavior or of other circumstances. Agency costs will eventually lead to failing the promise of improving the quality of public services outsourced to contractors. Next, outsourcing government functions or departments may also generate a threat on job security among employees since outsourcing generally entails eliminations or replacements of current positions and employees. Moreover, too much emphasis on market-oriented values (i.e., efficiency) by government outsourcing may conflict with traditional democratic values (i.e., equity) that public employees have been educated to pursue during their career.

With the aim to fill the current gap in the literature, I and my colleagues—Gyeo Reh Lee (Ph.D. Candidate), Deanna Malatesta (Associate Professor), and Sergio Fernandez (Associate Professor)—in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University have empirically explored governmental employees’ perspective on the potential consequences of government outsourcing in organizational performance. Our findings do not support the traditional narrative that market-oriented practices improve organizational performance in the public sector. We rather report evidence of the negative impact of government outsourcing on employees’ evaluation on organizational performance. Specifically, as government outsourcing activity increases, employees report lower agency performance. Further, fewer employees report job satisfaction as they observe an increase of outsourcing activity in their agency.

Our findings highlight the critical roles of managers in designing and implementing internal managerial practices to instill positive outcomes of government outsourcing. For example, given the critical role of organizational innovativeness in improving organizational performance, agencies can benefit from creating work environments which allow their employees to gain new expertise and methods from contractors. More importantly, agency leaders should frequently and openly communicate with employees to determine if they perceive government outsourcing as fulfilling its promises.

This research has recently been accepted for publication in The American Review of Public Administration. To access the full article, email Dr. Shinwoo Lee.